ISLAMABAD – Pakistanis vote in an election on Monday that could bring about the downfall of President Pervez Musharraf if it returns a hostile parliament with a prime minister who wants to be his own man.
While it’s not a presidential election there’s no doubting what the main issue is.
“It is President Pervez Musharraf,” said Ijaz Shafi Gilani, chairman of Gallup Pakistan, whose survey released on Thursday showed almost two-thirds of Pakistanis have had enough of the 64-year-old ex-commando leading their nuclear-armed country.
U.S. ally Musharraf is used to prime ministers doing his bidding since he came to power as a general in coup in 1999, and he behaves like Pakistan’s chief executive.
He got himself re-elected while still army chief by a pliant parliament before it was dissolved, and then in November invoked emergency powers for six weeks to remove judges who might have ruled it unconstitutional.
The next prime minister has to choose whether to play second fiddle to him and the parliament cannot duck the issue of the constitutionality of Musharraf’s presidency, Gilani said.
An expected low turnout, and possible rigging could help Musharraf ride out the storm. But if any rigging is overdone it would risk sparking agitation that could precipitate his end.
If the vote isn’t rejected, everything hinges on what the party of assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto opts to do if, as expected, it emerges as the largest party in 342-seat National Assembly and gets a chance to lead the next coalition.
Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), now led by her widower Asif Ali Zardari must choose between negotiating a working arrangement with Musharraf, or confrontation, which is what most PPP voters want to see, according to Gilani.
Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times and a top political analyst, believed PPP won’t make Musharraf’s ouster its priority.
“I don’t think they would risk getting into another fight so soon after coming into power unless, of course, Musharraf makes life very difficult for them,” Sethi said. “If they’re pushed to the wall they will, but as a first option, I don’t think so.”
Musharraf’s survival will be unpopular with Pakistanis fed up with rising food prices and the human cost of a war against Islamist militants that many think is America’s not Pakistan’s.
People are angry over Musharraf’s authoritarian responses to challenges over the past year, and they distrust the official account of Bhutto’s murder, blaming militants for her assassination on December 27.
Nawaz Sharif, the premier Musharraf overthrew and leader of the other main opposition party, wants Musharraf brought down.
Gilani believes Zardari’s position within PPP will come under pressure if he ignores voters’ wishes by working with Musharraf.
“This kind of a disconnect between the voters and the people elected will put tremendous stress on PPP,” the pollster said.
Beyond Musharraf, the personality, the election basically comes down to how much people want the army out of politics, after yo-yoing between military and civilian rule since Pakistan’s formation following the partition of India in 1947.
“It’s come to a crisis point because for 30 years of Pakistan’s 60 years it has been ruled by the military, and ruled in an arbitrary way, one that is disrespectful of the law,” said Pervez Hoodhbhoy, a nuclear physicist and commentator with anti-establishment views.
“We have seen that the army has entrenched itself at the cost of the people of Pakistan.”
The 1970 poll was the first and only one regarded as fair in a country where intelligence agencies fiddle elections and generals have justified successive coups.
The talk is now of a transition to civilian-led democracy, but Hoodhbhoy believes that even if Musharraf quit, it would take 10 years or more for the military to stop looking over elected politicians’ shoulders and let them govern without interference.
Musharraf’s idea of transition revolves around himself, his handpicked army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, and whoever is the next prime minister acting as a troika to run Pakistan’s affairs.
People have been encouraged to think that Kayani, who took command in November, wants the army out of politics.
He has ordered senior officers to give up civilian posts, and barred them from meeting politicians.
Musharraf, who weakened his ties with the institution that has been his greatest source of strength when he quit the army, is now at his most vulnerable.
Last month he hinted he would quit if there was any move by the new parliament to impeach him or cancel the indemnity he granted himself for breaching the constitution.
“I would give 50-50 to the possibility that he will step down,” said Gilani. Otherwise, he foresaw Pakistan’s crisis deepening.