Can a dictator oversee an election?

Today, Curtis and Katulis discuss Pakistan's upcoming elections. Yesterday, they debated whether fighting terrorism is worth giving U.S. foreign aid to an undemocratic regime. Later in the week, they'll discuss Benazir Bhutto, how losing Pakistan's alliance would affect the war on terrorism and more.

Boost Pakistanis' confidence in electionsBy Lisa Curtis
Most Pakistanis doubt that free and fair elections can be held with President Pervez Musharraf at the helm. He has squandered his credibility over the last year, dismissing the country's Supreme Court chief justice last March, imposing emergency rule in November and then mishandling the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. (The Pakistani Interior Ministry initially claimed that Bhutto died from a head fracture despite video footage that indicates she was likely killed by a bullet.) If Musharraf further postpones the February election, most Pakistanis will believe he has done so to prolong his own grip on power.

Musharraf could take steps to boost Pakistanis' confidence in the election process. These steps include lifting remaining curbs on the media (although Musharraf officially lifted emergency rule in mid-December, a media code of conduct remains in effect); releasing detained lawyers, activists and civilian politicians; working with the political parties to establish a neutral election commission, and most important, reestablishing the independence of the judiciary.

The escalating number of suicide attacks, which has made Pakistan second only to Iraq in the number of bombings in the last six months, also complicates the election environment. Terrorists have proved that they can strike anywhere, any time without suffering retaliation. In fact, some Pakistanis were willing to take the word of Taliban terrorist Baitullah Mahsud over the Musharraf government regarding culpability in Bhutto's slaying, which signals the level of chaos and confusion gripping Pakistani society.

In this polarized political environment, a transparent and fair election seems more difficult than ever, yet the stakes simply could not be any higher. A flawed election viewed as rigged by Musharraf would lead to further civil unrest that could bring Pakistan to a dangerous tipping point. The violent protests and arousal of ethnic tensions sparked by the Bhutto assassination demonstrate the country's fragility. Pakistan has held eight elections in its 60-year history, but next month's may prove to be the most important one yet. Unless Musharraf initiates steps now to bring political reconciliation and ensure a level playing field, he will be held responsible for a flawed election, which would lead to greater instability for his battered country.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation (

Democracy is more than an electionBy Brian Katulis
Lisa, I agree with much of your analysis, but I'm afraid you've avoided giving a clear answer to the central question — can Pakistan have free and fair parliamentary elections next month with Musharraf in power? I think you and I agree: The answer is essentially no.

Your response outlines a list of steps that Musharraf could take to boost Pakistanis' confidence in the electoral process — lifting curbs on the media, releasing detained activists, working with political parties to establish a neutral election commission, and reestablishing the independence of the judiciary. Those are the right steps, and I might add one more: establishing a national unity government that can serve as a legitimate caretaker in this transition period.

The problem is this: Most — if not all — of these things are not likely to happen in the remaining weeks before the election. Musharraf has shown little inclination to take steps in the right direction on those key steps. This is especially true for restoring an independent judiciary, which was sacked by Musharraf in what was little more than a blatant undemocratic move to stay in power.

Where does that leave Pakistan? Most likely on a pretty quick path to what you accurately describe — a flawed election that would lead to further civil unrest and could bring Pakistan to a dangerous tipping point. Notwithstanding the facts that Pakistan is already at that dangerous tipping point today and experiencing high levels of violence, the negative scenario you outline is unfortunately the one that will likely come to pass. One other possible alternative is that the Pakistani public — increasingly disenchanted with its electoral choices — could choose to disengage from formal politics, resulting in a low turnout. The latter scenario seems less likely at this point, given the heightened tensions and stakes in play in these elections.

It's important to understand how the situation in Pakistan got to where it is today — and a central problem is directly related to failures in U.S. policy. One problem with U.S. policy has been its singular focus on individuals and personalities rather than leaders. In my meetings in Pakistan last month, a top official in a leading opposition party in Lahore argued that a key problem with U.S. policy on Pakistan is its almost singular approach and obsession with individual leaders, rather than institutions and the whole society: "Why does President Bush say, 'Mr. Musharraf is my friend?' Why doesn't he say Pakistan is our friend?" With many of Pakistan's top judges fired during the imposition of emergency rule in November, the official could see little point in holding an election. In his view, the lack of rule of law would make a mockery of the process. Rather than push for immediate elections, the official argued, it would be better for the United States to support building strong institutions, including continued support for Pakistan's army but also standing by other vital institutions like the judiciary, especially now that its independence is called into question.

The Bush administration missed an important window of opportunity last November to place greater leverage on Musharraf when he crossed the line in his power grab masquerading as an emergency rule imposed to fight terrorist groups. Instead of strongly criticizing these actions and joining with democratic activists in Pakistan and around the world, the U.S. administration that has wrapped itself in the banner of freedom was strangely muted in its response.

All too often in recent years the United States has looked to elections in other countries as the primary indication for success or failure in a country's progress toward political reform. Democracy, narrowly defined as elections, would defeat the forces of terrorism and extremism, Bush declared in his freedom agenda. Yet in many places around the world like Iraq and the Palestinian territories, this strategy backfired — and democracy narrowly defined as elections actually ended up empowering extremist forces. In the case of Pakistan, I agree with you, Lisa: There is little chance that religious extremists will gain power. But it is quite likely that violence might escalate as a result of these elections.

To move beyond this ineffective approach, the United States needs to take a more comprehensive approach to reform, one that places as much importance on an independent judiciary and competence in the executive branches of government as on "free and fair" electoral processes. Another temporary postponement of the elections, with a defined end date and a more serious commitment to the steps that you have outlined, Lisa, might be the best path forward. This, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be in the works, partly because of the Bush administration's reluctance to exercise the leverage we have in Pakistan. Looking ahead to the coming month in Pakistan, it's time to buckle up — unfortunately, it looks like we're in for an even bumpier ride than we saw last year.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the coauthor of the forthcoming book, "The Prosperity Agenda."

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