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Home > India > News > Report

Pakistan faces the mother of all polls

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi | February 16, 2008 00:58 IST
Last Updated: February 16, 2008 12:36 IST

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Complete Coverage: Pak polls

Come Monday, Pakistan will face perhaps the most crucial polls in its history. Ironically, a man who is not fighting the polls, is one of the biggest issues at the hustings. The polls are crucial because President Pervez Musharraf [Images], the most powerful person of Pakistan for the last eight years, is facing his biggest challenge.


For the first time after his bloodless coup in 1999, the balance of power is being challenged with the help of a democratic mechanism.


As 112-member European Union Election Observation Mission reached Pakistan on Friday, one knows why Musharraf termed the polls the "mother of all elections" while speaking in Islamabad.


When Pakistan goes to polls on February 18, the President has reiterated that the voting exercise will be free, fair and transparent.


The issue of rigging has become a catchphrase for the Opposition leaders and voters are sensitised like never before.


As the possibility of rigging has been highlighted even in international media, it has directly increased the level of uncertainty in Pakistan. The improbability of the election results is so daunting that different permutations and combinations are being talked about, including Musharraf's so-called exit strategy.


But Pakistan experts in India opine that Musharraf is not as weak as is portrayed. Notwithstanding his low-approval rating of 15 per cent, Musharraf  is very much in the game . Once a soldier, always a soldier, that sums up the man.  He will not hang up boots just because the 'so-called democracy' is round the corner.


Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal tells, "As far as I can see, Musharraf is not looking for an exit policy. If he were, he would have handled the deteriorating situation in Pakistan differently."


M K Bhadrakumar, former diplomat and a Pakistan expert, says, "Musharraf is a soldier-politician with a good mastery over the art of the possible. The military counts on him to perpetuate its corporate interests. The amy is free to focus on its professional matters. The arrangement is working and there is no reason why it shouldn't."


Sibal says the problem with military dictators is that because they take over power by force and they have to be forced to give it up.


"Musharraf still feels he is indispensable and will try to manipulate the developing political situation as much as he can. Yes, a massive public movement can force him out, but there is no sign of that," he said.


Experts point out that Musharraf's utility for the US in its war against Al Qaeda [Images] has been diluted, but is not over yet.


Importantly, in a given situation he remains important for the US for safeguarding the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and preventing it from falling into the hands of jihadi elements.


Chennai-based Pakistan expert B Raman believes, "Any public perception that he was forced to leave in humiliation will be seen as a result of his co-operation with the US against terrorism."


He thinks that his way of exit will be detrimental to the outcome of the war against terrorism. "The US' first preference will be to work for his continuance in power through a system of co-habitation with the elected prime minister with mutually agreed conditions."


"As things stand now, Musharraf's exit is a possibility, but not inevitable. His position may, however, become untenable if his opponents in the Pakistan's People's Party and the Pakistan's Muslim League (N) together get a two-third majority," Raman says.


Pakistan's politics will take a dramatic turn if the PPP and the PML- N get a two-third majority. Asif Zaradari has already said that he will like to explore the option of a national government.


A New Delhi-based expert believes that Zaradari is more vulnerable than Nawaz Sharif. The PPP's unity is fragile and Zardari himself is a soft target of the "hard poachers" of Islamabad.


Only a simple majority to Sharif's party, PML- N, can push Musharraf to the wall. But reports so far do not show such a possibility.


But Bhadrakumar thinks, "A coalition government is likely to emerge. Musharraf will play a balancing role. Pakistani politicians in power are not exactly an inspiring lot. Therefore, Musharraf shouldn't have difficulty in carving out political space within the emerging equation." 


If some unexpected results do come in and the situation descends into further chaos, then the Pakistan Army may have some role.


Sibal said, "Ultimately, the army will have to decide whether a change should occur, should the so-called democratic process that has been set in motion heads towards a political crisis, with the successful opposition asking for the general's scalp."


He adds, 'The US wants orderly transition in Pakistan. But, the last few years has shown that US has its limitations while dealing with Pakistan."


Bhadrakumar says,"Recently, Washington has realised its limits to pressurise Musharraf or bend the Pakistani military."


In the elections, besides Musharraf's rule, his role in the US agenda of war against terror and the violence in country, power and food crisis and other such economic issues will be a factor.


Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, a strategic analyst, says, "Musharraf's future will depend on the poll outcome. The post-election stance of Army Chief General Kiyani will be crucial, like how he supports Musharraf. If the post-election scenario brings internal turbulence, then it will test Pakistan's legendary resilience."


Asked about Musharraf's future after the elections, Dr Shireen M Mazari, Islambad-based analyst says, "I don't know. It depends on how he adjusts to new political regime. As a person, he means well. With his military background sometime, he speaks off the cuff and without thinking that causes a lot of problem."


"I hope we have a peaceful future. I would like that. We have seen too much violence in Pakistan," she adds.