Pakistani P.R.

Pakistani P.R.
Editorial; New York Times, February 1, 2008

You have to hand it to Pervez Musharraf. With all the problems the Pakistani president faces at home, he still found time to spend eight days in Europe last week, assuring world leaders everything is fine in his nuclear-armed state. But everything is not fine, and the cracks in his sunny public-relations facade were not hard to see.

Mr. Musharraf petulantly lashed out at an influential group of retired officers from Pakistan’s powerful military that had urged him to step down immediately, dismissing them in a Financial Times interview as “insignificant personalities.” In fact, they are yet another reflection of how the ex-army chief of staff’s popularity has plummeted, even among former fellow officers.

And when a leading Pakistani journalist at a London news conference asked a reasonable question about the security services, Mr. Musharraf implied that he was an enemy of the state. Such intimidation is especially chilling coming from a leader whose chief political rival, Benazir Bhutto, was recently assassinated. In a nation with democratic aspirations, journalists have every right to question leaders. He still doesn’t seem to get that.

Throughout his European tour, Mr. Musharraf insisted that he could weather the political turmoil back home that is largely of his own making and ensure free and fair elections for Parliament on Feb. 18. However, even senior administration officials now admit that there are still “serious distortions” in the Pakistani election process and that given the country’s history, some voter fraud is expected. And that’s what they say in public. The classified version can only be worse.

Mr. Musharraf continues to put unwarranted restrictions on the news media, to jail political opponents without charge and to refuse to reinstate the Supreme Court (the deposed chief judge remains under house arrest) and other judges he summarily dismissed because they would not do his bidding. There are reports that candidates and voters are being intimidated by intelligence officers and local government officials. His government has also unfairly limited election observers. Hopes that the balloting could be credible were further undermined when the International Republican Institute, the only American group planning to monitor the election, canceled its plans over concerns about possible suicide bombings and other violence.

Lack of security remains a serious concern as the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban has expanded from the Afghan border to Pakistani cities. It has hindered candidates in campaigning and could discourage turnout. The army, now under a less-politicized general, must make good on a promise not to interfere in the election.

Since the political crisis mushroomed last year, Mr. Musharraf has worked overtime clinging to power. It’s hard to believe that if he is faced with a tidal wave of popular dissatisfaction, he will let voters choose a Parliament that could one day remove him. We hope we are wrong. He has promised world leaders a fair election. If it is rigged, they must hold him accountable.

Despite a United States missile attack this week that killed a senior Al Qaeda commander, they also must hold him accountable for an increasingly losing fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban — on which America has spent more than $10 billion. If Mr. Musharraf’s commitment were more sincere, he might figure out a way to take advantage of recent American offers to expand military and intelligence cooperation.

Successfully moving Pakistan from military rule to civilian-run democracy is essential to combating extremism. Mr. Musharraf has a major role in making this happen. The United States and its allies must keep reinforcing that message.

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