By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 7, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 6 -- Under fire for months, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf received the validation he was looking for Saturday when lawmakers overwhelmingly elected him to a new five-year term. But his political fortunes will remain in doubt for at least several more weeks as the Supreme Court considers whether he was eligible to run in the first place.
The vote in the national and provincial assemblies played out with little fanfare and no suspense. Only Musharraf's ruling coalition participated, with the opposition boycotting the vote to protest his decision to seek election by lame-duck assemblies while still serving as army chief.
In unofficial results, Musharraf received 98 percent of the nearly 700 ballots cast. But more than 40 percent of those who were eligible to vote refused to take part, dismissing the election as a farce.
"This is a sandblast-proof election, the only kind Musharraf could afford," said political analyst Ayaz Amir. "He must be thanking his stars that October 6th has come and the country has not shut down. The only fly in his ointment now is the Supreme Court."
The court ruled Friday that the election results cannot be finalized until judges decide whether the general should be disqualified because of his army job. As a result, uncertainty will linger into late October, or even November.
Still, Musharraf and his supporters on Saturday were able to claim victory -- at least for now. Musharraf shrugged off concerns about the credibility of the election.
"If the majority votes for something, it is the rule of the day. That's democracy. There's no problem," he said at a news conference. Musharraf said the vote represented a crucial step in the "transition back to an absolutely normal government system."
While Musharraf had been considered vulnerable after a botched attempt in March to fire the nation's chief justice, he managed to hold off a burgeoning anti-military, pro-democracy movement by dividing a poorly organized opposition. He took a hard line against several parties, arresting their leaders and breaking up their rallies. At the same time, he negotiated behind the scenes with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who heads the largest opposition party.
In the end, none of the opposition parties participated in Saturday's election. But Bhutto's party split with the other groups by choosing not to quit the assemblies entirely, and instead to simply walk out before the vote. That decision was the product of a deal with Musharraf that will allow Bhutto to return from exile on Oct. 18 without facing corruption charges.
With the opposition missing, those who were left at the National Assembly building in Islamabad on Saturday voted quietly. One by one, they walked to the front of the cavernous assembly hall to mark their ballots behind a curtain and then drop them in a plastic bin. The officials cheered and shouted pro-Musharraf slogans when the results were announced.
Outside, planned protests by the opposition parties failed to materialize, and Islamabad was largely calm.
The scene in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, was considerably more contentious. Hundreds of lawyers protested outside the assembly building, clashing with police who used baton charges and tear gas to disperse the crowd. The protesters set fire to a police vehicle after it ran over a lawyer's legs, and several other people were injured in the melee.
"Musharraf can silence the voices of politicians, but he can't silence the voice of lawyers who have taken up this movement against military rule and the army's intervention in the country's politics," said Ghulam Ali, a lawyer.
Opposition lawyers have tried to challenge Musharraf's presidential candidacy, saying his job as army chief should disqualify him.
But if the court decides he is eligible to run -- as is expected -- Saturday's vote means he will have the right to rule Pakistan until 2012.
Musharraf, 64, came to power through a military coup in 1999, appointed himself president in 2001 and won a widely discredited referendum in 2002. The assemblies that extended his tenure Saturday came to office in tainted national elections five years ago. Their terms expire next month, and the country is due for fresh parliamentary elections by January.
The current assemblies are packed with Musharraf supporters, but his party is not expected to do well in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Musharraf resisted calls all year to hold the presidential election after the public could have its say in the parliamentary vote.
The U.S.-allied Musharraf has vowed to retire from the army before he is sworn in for another term, although he insisted on keeping his uniform until after he had won.
Many members of Musharraf's party expressed enthusiasm for him Saturday after they cast their ballots, citing his record in fighting terrorism, growing the economy and expanding women's rights.
"If I had a million votes, I would have given them all to General Musharraf," said Razina Alam Khan, a senator with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League.
But some backers were more conditional in their support.
"I'm here to vote for him only because he decided to take off his uniform," said Nilofar Bakhtiar, a former government minister. "If he had not decided to do this, I would not have voted for him."
Musharraf's popularity has fallen sharply this year, with anti-democratic tactics, rising inflation and a controversial alliance with the United States all eating away at his standing.
"If there were an open election, nobody would give him their vote," said Mubeen Ahmed, 42, a businessman. "The only reason people don't come out on the streets against him is they need to earn their bread and butter."
Musharraf's party threw a victory celebration in the capital Saturday night. About 1,500 people initially showed up, but after consuming all the available food within minutes, the crowd was soon down to just 300. Some of those in attendance said they had been paid 700 rupees apiece, or about $12, to stay and cheer their president's victory.
But Musharraf still retains some genuine support, especially in the military and business communities.
"His policies are very good and smooth," said Aqeel Ahmed, 47, a shopkeeper in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. "God has given him his role, and until God doesn't want him to be our ruler anymore, he will remain."
Special correspondents Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar and Shahzad Khurram in Rawalpindi contributed to this report.