Blunders cannot win the day for Pakistan

EVERY general who has ruled Pakistan in the past has tried to change the system he has found, but in each case, the new set-up has not survived its architect. Now, as General Musharraf surveys the debris of the political structure he has cobbled together, general elections must be the last thing he needs. And yet, they are just around the corner, waiting to ambush him as he goes past.

By Irfan Husain

Published: Thu 31 May 2007, 8:20 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:53 PM

Unfortunately, in Musharraf and his hand-picked prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, we have two political novices who have never fought or won an election in their lives. The latter was declared the winner in a dubious by-election, and then elevated to the position of prime minister. The president wrangled his indirect election by promising to retire from the army. But neither has any experience in the rough and tumble of Pakistani politics, as both have depended on the state apparatus to win and to wield power.

And now that they face a crucial test at the polls in the Fall, they are clearly struggling. The situation is not unlike appointing a captain and vice-captain for our Test team two players who have played cricket only at school level. The first thing they should know is that in elections everywhere, parties and their candidates need to have some sort of record of success when they go back to their constituents. What exactly has the ruling coalition done to deserve another term? Are ordinary people better or worse off than they were in 2002?

The rich have certainly got richer: witness the presence of Porsche and Rolls Royce dealerships in Pakistan. Nowadays, people think nothing of spending tens of millions on a flat. Armani suits and Gucci shoes grace the persons of the nouveaux riches from the president downwards. Weekend farms have proliferated around Lahore, complete with swimming pools. So all in all, these last five years have been a good time to make money in Pakistan.

How much of this new wealth was legitimately acquired is a different question. According to Transparency International, Pakistan today is a far more corrupt country than it was when Musharraf seized power in 1999. A London-based friend who puts deals together in different parts of the world says that he has never encountered the degree of greed in Pakistan as he does now. When he was looking at the possibility of setting up an energy-related project recently, he received a call from somebody who claimed to represent various generals, offering to facilitate the deal. When my friend asked to meet the principals involved, he was told the upfront fees, to be paid prior to the meeting, was a million dollars. Added to this demand was the implied threat: "If you try to push the project through without us, we will see to it that you are blocked at every turn."

But unfortunately for the ruling coalition, this wealth does not necessarily translate into votes. Most Pakistanis today consider themselves to be worse off. Inflation is eating into their meagre incomes; unemployment is rampant; and law and order is a nightmare. In the eight years since he staged his coup, General Musharraf has not succeeded in adding a single megawatt to the national grid. And despite the highly touted privatisation of the Karachi power supply company a couple of years ago, the city’s power supply has never been less reliable, with citizens having to put up with hours without electricity every day.

Beyond the personal suffering caused by this government’s incompetence and corruption, there is the worsening situation on our borders. While our relations with India are less tense, we have a disaster looming on our Afghan border. Of late, there have been raids into Iran from Pakistani territory by an extremist group, killing a number of Iranian security personnel. This, and other Pakistani policies, have soured relations with Iran. In the region, many countries are concerned by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan, a phenomenon that threatens their stability as well as ours.

Thus, when Musharraf claims he has raised the image of Pakistan in the world, I’m afraid the opposite is true. The reality is that in the West, there is a growing concern over the rapid decline in the writ of the state in the country. Islamabad’s inability to control its tribal areas as well as the troubled districts of Balochistan is being increasingly highlighted in the media around the world. The whole Lal Masjid episode is a telling example of how things are spinning out of Musharraf’s control. The recent bloodbath in Karachi and the mishandling of the judicial crisis are just further episodes that illustrate how out of touch with reality Musharraf and his partners really are.

The other success this government claims is the steady rise in foreign exchange reserves since 9/11. But the reason for this windfall has nothing to do with Shaukat Aziz’s financial acumen, and everything to do with Western assistance, as well as the international crackdown on unofficial hundi transactions. In any case, these reserves do very little for the common man. When Shaukat Aziz claims success for his macroeconomic policies, the voter is largely unimpressed. He wants to know how his life has improved as a result. The short answer is that it hasn’t.

In most democracies, a government with this kind of track record could not hope to win an election. But in Pakistan, the art of rigging has been developed into a science by the bureaucracy and the intelligence agencies. This is why Musharraf, as well as the ruling PMLQ-MQM coalition, can expect to do far better than they deserve. In a recent opinion poll in Russia, well over 50 per cent of those polled said they did not think the next elections would reflect the popular will, and expected the bureaucracy to rig the outcome. I wonder what percentage of Pakistanis feels the same way.

However, even in Pakistan, there are limits to how blatantly an election can be stolen. Bitter experience shows that if the margin between the two front-runners is less than 5,000 votes, the numbers can be massaged in favour of the official candidate. Above this number, rigging is difficult. Such close contests are not the norm, so basically, the state apparatus needs to fix the results in about 30-40 constituencies. As we all know, this task is not beyond them. In Karachi and Hyderabad, the MQM has traditionally used its muscle to win, so the results there are pretty much a foregone conclusion.

But Musharraf needs to remember that the legitimacy he is so desperately looking for will not come through rigged elections.

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani writer based in London. He can be reached at

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