Worries Wrack Pakistan as Election Nears

Griff Witte
Washington Post Reporter
Thursday, February 7, 2008; 10:00 AM

Washington Post reporter Griff Witte was online Thursday, Feb. 7 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss the mood in Pakistan leading up to the Feb. 18 election, including worries among the public and candidates about fraud, riots and assassinations.

The transcript follows.


Griff Witte: Hello, everyone. We'll be talking for the next hour about the volatile atmosphere in Pakistan as we head toward the upcoming elections. Let's get right to your questions.


Washington: Does it look like Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Muslim League will come together with the Pakistan Peoples Party against Pakistan Muslim League in the elections?

Griff Witte: Almost as important as the elections themselves will be the post-election maneuvering among the parties. Pakistan has a multitude of political groups -- left, right and center -- but there are three main parties: The Bhutto/Zardari-led PPP, which is center-left, the Pakistan Muslim League faction led by Nawaz Sharif (which is center-right) and the PML faction that supports Musharraf. Most analysts believe that none of the three will be strong enough after the election to form a government on its own, so that means two will probably have to team up; which two, however, is anyone's guess.


Ottawa, Ontario: When have elections in Pakistan ever since its inception been free and fair? Rigging of polls in Pakistan has become an essential prerequisite to any election, even during election of civilian leaders like Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. The three military dictators who have ruled Pakistan by edict and decree had no need to worry about elections or democratic rule when they quite easily could manipulate the constitution and subvert electoral processes to stay in power.

Griff Witte: You're right -- the track record is not great. On my desk is a little book titled "How Elections are Rigged in Pakistan," and trust me, there are many ways. The difference this year is that the situation is much more volatile going into the elections, and there's much more attention focused on the process. People haven't been able to go to the polls in national elections since 2002, and since then a lot has changed -- namely, Musharraf's popularity has plummeted. These elections in large part will be a referendum on his tenure, but there will be major dissatisfaction in the streets if the people feel that their opinions aren't represented by the official results.


Anonymous: What kind of fairness will prevail in elections under an unjust dictator such as Musharraf; the judiciary has been knocked down, the justices are house-arrested without water and electricity, their kids are denied any schooling, and the government openly is backing a notorious political party, Muslim League Q.

Griff Witte: These are the concerns that a lot of Pakistanis share going into the vote.


Plano, Texas: There seems to be little mention in the U.S. media coverage of convoluted environment within mainstream Pakistani political parties, which work like feudal fiefdoms, wracked with nepotism, with well-documented corruption cases, monumental records of incompetence, and the use of violent street power for political gain. All parties -- including PPP, different factions of PML (including the faction that backs President Musharraf) and MMA -- are led by deeply divisive, corrupt and autocratic leaders. Even now the army is the only national institution that is relatively better-managed and has to fill the power vacuum left by the inept civil institutions.

Griff Witte: You raise an excellent point, which is that the parties representing a return to democratic rule in Pakistan are hardly democratic themselves. They tend to revolve around families or individual personalities, rather than ideology. But their counterargument is that the army never has allowed for a functioning democratic system in Pakistan, and that true democracy -- and truly democratic parties -- will come when the army is pushed back to the barracks and out of politics.


Washington: What indications are there that there might be post-election violence in Pakistan? Are the risks greater in some cases than others? Some cities or provinces?

Griff Witte: That's the big question right now. If the results are heavily rigged, then I'd say the potential is high. As for exactly where, it depends who suffers because of the rigging. If the PPP decides that it won't accept the outcome, I'd be concerned about unrest in Sindh province, particularly in Karachi.


Los Angeles: President Musharraf has overall done a good job in a difficult time for Pakistan and the world. However, his legacy is tarnished by not allowing independent judiciary, not controlling the corruption and currently high inflation. Is it possible for him to stay in power and repair his legacy. With his popularity very low and no moral authority, can he stay in power?

Griff Witte: This is also a very big, important question, a year ago I'd say that most Pakistanis would have agreed with you that Musharraf had done well under trying circumstances, but that view has changed very rapidly. After all of the crackdowns of the past 12 months against various segments of society -- the judiciary, the media, political parties, etc. -- he just doesn't have much support left.

Whether he stays depends on the elections. If the results aren't rigged, and if the anti-Musharraf forces turn out to the polls, then the new parliament may have a mandate to impeach him. The question then would be whether he accepts that judgment, or whether he tries to get the army involved to keep him in power.


Newark, Del.: Imran Khan, the most famous cricketer that Pakistan has produced, is an intelligent, articulate and charismatic man who should have been able to translate his popularity as a cricketer into a successful politician. Yet he has not. What are the reasons for this? Why don't the educated middle class in Pakistan embrace him as a political leader in the same way that they did when he was Pakistan's lion-hearted cricket captain?

Griff Witte: The basic answer is that it's not easy starting a political movement in Pakistan, especially if your movement is opposed to the army's role in politics. Imran has tried for years to get his party off the ground, but has been crippled by a lack of money or institutional support. He's boycotting this round of elections -- a principled stand, perhaps, but one that won't give him much of a say in the new, post-election scenario.


Washington: I heard that the TV channel Aaj went off air again yesterday. How has the media been lately in covering issues relating to the elections?

Griff Witte: Pakistani journalists have been enormously brave in covering all of the turmoil in Pakistan in the past year. They've written and reported much that's unfavorable to the government, and to Musharraf, but there's a limit to what they can do. Musharraf has made clear he's willing to crack down hard when he doesn't like what journalists have to report. The knowledge that he can pull the plug on a station at any time makes it extremely difficult for Pakistani reporters to cover these elections as aggressively as they'd like.


Washington: Do you see any chance that the religious groups, such as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, could form a government

Griff Witte: There's virtually no chance of this happening. The most popular parties in Pakistan always have been secular-minded and relatively moderate; that's still true today, despite the extremist insurgency that seems to be gaining ground by the day. The Taliban and their supporters aren't interested in the democratic process -- the only way they influence the election is by carrying out attacks. The religious parties are campaigning, but they seem to have less appeal than they did when they won control of two provincial assemblies back in 2002. There's always a chance that one of the religious parties could wind up as a coalition partner in the government, but it wouldn't be calling the shots.


Washington: Why can't the Bush administration understand that by helping Musharraf, who has effectively destroyed the democratic institutions in Pakistan, is destroying America's reputation in the country, as well as ruining the trust between the ordinary people and Washington for generations to come?

Griff Witte: I hear this sort of sentiment on the streets of Pakistan quite a bit these days...


Griff Witte: Unfortunately, that's all the time we have. Thanks for your questions.


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