Musharraf's Election Plan Meets Suspicion in Pakistan

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's plans to hold general elections in October next year, three years after his military coup, have been met with deep suspicion in a country versed in the promises of generals.

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf (L) shakes hand with top military official, General Mehmood (2nd R), the chief of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), after a flag hoisting ceremony to mark the country's 54th Independence Day in Islamabad, 14 August 2001. Musharraf said Pakistan would continue its dialogue with India and offered to go any length to resolve the Kashmir dispute and other issues with its rival neighbour.

Musharraf on Tuesday laid out his long-awaited "road map" for democracy in an Independence Day speech, promising to hand over power to civilian rule through elections from October 1 to 11 next year.

But analysts said his speech, while likely to ease some of the international pressure he has been under to announce an election date, has raised as many questions as it answered, chief of which is the role of Musharraf himself and the military in the new parliamentary set-up.

"He dressed like a politician and spoke like a populist. A political phase of the military regime has begun," political analyst Mushahid Hussain said.

Musharraf wore a white shalwar kameez and black vest during his speech, the combination favoured by ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Gone were the commando uniforms and berets of the military man: this was Musharraf the political leader making his debut on the national stage.

"It will be a quasi-parliamentary system in which power will rest with the president," said Professor of International Relations of Karachi University Moonis Ahmar.

"On one hand Musharraf claimed he is giving powers to the people at the grassroots level, but he himself is holding all the powerful offices, including president, army chief and chief executive."

Musharraf said "necessary constitutional amendments" would be part of the election preparations, raising alarm bells for many familiar with Pakistan's long history of military governments.

"Former dictator Zia-ul-Haq promised elections in 90-days in 1977 and ruled this country for 11 years. Musharraf also has long-term plans," said Karachi Bar Association Secretary Mahmoodul Hasan.

"It appears that centralisation of power will continue to revolve around the president, while future political governments and parliament will be nothing but puppets."

Others were not so harsh. Columnist and political analyst Nasim Zehra said the president and his military-led team were trying to build a "guided democracy".

"It seems they are trying to combine good management and guided democracy. They have done some clear thinking on both these elements as far as their own understanding is concerned," she said.

"The real challenge, especially on the political front, will be whether operational politics can match their design of political engineering."

Political parties were banned from contesting the local council elections which were held over the past eight months under reforms designed to filter power from the federal government to the grassroots.

Musharraf has promised they can take part in the general elections but he made no mention of them on Tuesday.

Politicians demanded he drop a ban on political rallies and show his hand concerning the role of the parties in his brave new democracy.

"The announcement giving the date for the polls is welcomed, but he has no right to bring any amendment in the constitution," said Raza Rabbani, deputy secretary general of Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.

Two-time prime ministers Bhutto and Sharif remain the most prominent political leaders in the country, but they have been discredited by widespread allegations of corruption and both live in exile.

Musharraf has vowed neither will be allowed to return to power as long as he has any say over Pakistan's political system.

Business leaders meanwhile said that no matter what future Musharraf had in mind for himself and the political system, stability was the key to attracting foreign investors.

"I am confident that in coming months the investment climate will get friendlier as the general seems determined to chain sectarian extremism and restore democratic institutions," Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry President Ifitkhar Ahmed Malik said.


Rana Jawad and Mazar Abbas write for AFP.

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Elections, Government And Politics, Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf
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