International Papers

Pakistan’s Poll Fatigue

Pakistanis went to the polls Thursday for the first time since Gen. Pervez Musharraf seized power in October 1999, but according to Dawn of Karachi, this was “the dullest campaign in Pakistan’s 55-year history.” The paper noted that the election was “apparently designed to produce a pliant parliament”: Political gatherings were strictly controlled, and the leaders of the two national parties, former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, were barred from entering the country and contesting the election. Among the new laws enacted by Musharraf was the requirement that parliamentary candidates hold a bachelor’s degree; as the London Times pointed out, this disqualifies 98 percent of the population and 30 percent of the previous parliament. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Ahmed Rashid noted, “Under this law, the founder of Pakistan, Jinnah, would have been ineligible to run because his qualification as a barrister from Lincoln’s Inn would not have been accepted by Pakistan’s election commission.”

Rashid bemoaned the U.S. and British administrations’ failure to protest Musharraf’s rigging of the election because they “consider security measures against terrorism more important than stability and democracy.” Predicting a post-election political crisis when opposition pols protest the new government’s illegitimacy, he concluded: “In the short term, dictatorships can catch terrorists as well as anyone, but they cannot rebuild trust in the state. Nor can these countries play a long-term role as part of the international coalition against terrorism.” The Financial Times said that given Pakistanis’ disenchantment with the often corrupt political class, Musharraf could easily have defeated “discredited, feudal politicians,” but by choosing instead to manipulate the system, he “set himself on a path to confrontation with modern and secular forces that he should mobilise in the struggle to modernise Pakistan.” The FT editorial concluded:

President Musharraf should think again, perhaps in terms of a new constitution, produced by an elected constituent assembly. So should the Bush administration, which, in its national security strategy, announced last month, argued that the advance of democracy was in the US national interest. It is hard to think of anywhere where that is more true than Pakistan, where a flawed election could help turn a failing state into a failed one.

In Pakistan, the papers fretted about the electorate’s understandable apathy. News International noted that in the last 40 years “only one prime minister has completed his five-year term and he was hanged two years later.” Although there appears to be more tolerance of dissent these days, the op-ed said this has more to do with changing times than with Musharraf’s benevolence: “With the smallest of Pakistani villages wired to the [satellite TV] dish, the recurrence of the 80s style censorship … became an impossible option.” Dawn observed: “The abrupt manner in which elected governments have been dismissed time and again has led to a widespread feeling that votes do not count. As a result, the sense of popular participation that is the bedrock of a democratic system has been dwindling.” The Nation conceded that the election was imperfect, but the editorial declared, “Unless the people come out of their homes to cast their votes, they will continue to face the problems they complain about. Apathy will just keep things as they are.”

“I Will Always Vote for You”: Iraq will hold a referendum Oct. 15, when the nation’s 11.5 million voters will be asked to answer “yes” or no” to the question, “Do you agree that Saddam Hussein should remain president?” The last time a vote was held, seven years ago, 99.89 percent said yes, which is hardly surprising given that voters, who were closely scrutinized by election officials, had to write their names on the ballots. According to the Times, the ruling Baath Party is taking the referendum seriously:

Party officials have chosen the Whitney Houston song “I Will Always Love You” as the campaign theme tune. The song accompanies the dawn-to-dusk election broadcasts on the three state-controlled television stations, which feature almost continuous footage of Saddam. He is shown praying, kissing children, firing an ancient rifle one-handed, waving to the masses and striking heroic poses.