Pakistan goes to the polls on April 30 (after Crescent press time) in a Zia-ul-Haq style referendum designed to legitimate general Perwez Musharraf’s continuing as ‘president’ for another five years. The result is a foregone conclusion; the only question is whether turn-out will be high enough for Musharraf to claim a genuine mandate. Regardless of the result, however, the reality is that few in Pakistan doubt that Musharraf is now the West’s man, a point emphasised by its acceptance of the sort of crooked politicking that it would laugh out of court in most other circumstances.
The lengths to which Musharraf has gone to ensure a ‘respectable’ victory are laughable. All the normal strategies of military dictators-turned-statesmen are there, of course, including the usual blanket coverage on state television and the appearance of massive billboards showing him in a variety of guises: the simple soldier, the decorated general, the man of the people (in shalwar-kamees) and the international statesman (in suit and tie).
Beyond these elementary strategies, Musharraf has put in place far more sophisticated means of ensuring victory. The state has spent an estimated $30 million preparing nearly 100,000 polling booths, which have been placed in locations as varied as hospitals, bus-stops, prisons and major workplaces. Private busses have been commandeered to take people to polling stations, and public employees will be required to vote; contrary to usual practice, the day will not be a public holiday.
To maximise turn-out, the government has scrapped the electoral register and permitted people to vote anywhere in the country, regardless of where they live. In theory, they will be stamped with indelible ink to ensure they do not vote more than once, but in practice the arrangement is likely to become a revolving door through which voters can pass as often as they wish. One commentator has described the system as being designed to ensure that voters “vote early and vote often.”
The object of the exercise is clearly to enable both Musharraf and the West to present him as a leader with a popular mandate to rule the country and to bring about the sort of changes that the West wants to see there. This includes the dismantling of the Islamic institutional infrastructure and the imposition of ‘modernization’ — ie. secularism — in all aspects of public life. Some of the less diplomatic western commentators have compared Musharraf to Mustafa Kemal, the man who de-Islamised Turkey.
The extent to which Musharraf is subordinate to the US was emphasised recently by the revelation that US troops are operating unilaterally in tribal areas close to the border with Afghanistan, in their continuing efforts to hunt down and exterminate the Taliban and its supporters. In military briefings in Washington, the US openly claimed to be operating in Pakistan. Pakistan immediately denied the claim, which was inconsistent with its public position that foreign troops would not be permitted to operate from its soil. After a period of confused claims and counter-claims as the two allies tried to square their stories, Washington reduced its claim, saying that US troops had only occasionally crossed the border in “hot pursuit” of Taliban troops.
In other ways, however, the US presence in Pakistan is open and unavoidable. The FBI is effectively running the Pakistani security agencies, controlling the airports and borders points, and deciding who may and may not enter or leave the country. The media has also been severely restricted by the US presence; speaking against the US is more likely to attract official attention than speaking out against Musharraf.
The majority of Pakistan’s political parties have rejected the validity of the referendum, and are looking forward to the parliamentary elections in October as an opportunity to stand against him. But with Musharraf’s position secure for five years, there are strong suspicions now that those elections will not be allowed to go ahead as scheduled. If they are not cancelled, they could be made into a non-party vote designed to pack the parliament with technocratic supporters of the regime. One way or another, the West will ensure that their man survives to ‘reform’ Pakistan to their requirements.