Two longtime bitter adversaries, former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, are trying to forge a common front to put pressure on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to level the playing field before the Jan. 8 election. The two opposition leaders met Monday night for the first time since each had returned from exile, huddling in a three-hour summit at Bhutto's house in Islamabad to discuss their joint strategy. The gulf separating them remains wide. But they agreed to form an eight-member committee to draw up a list of demands that would be presented to Musharraf in the next two or three days. If he doesn't make significant gestures toward meeting their ultimatums, Bhutto and Sharif warned that boycotting the vote was a very real option, which would make the election meaningless.
Musharraf, however, is unlikely to be in a compromising mood. Having been sworn in for a new five-year term last week after resigning from his powerful position as army chief, and perhaps losing some political clout as a result, he knows he would be undermining the foundation of his well-mapped-out strategy to keep himself and his political allies in power if he were to cave in to Bhutto and Sharif's demands. Their joint political wish list will doubtless include a demand for a drastically reshaped caretaker government, and with good reason. The present interim administration headed by Mohammadmian Soomro was personally selected by Musharraf and consists almost exclusively of supporters belonging to his political vehicle, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q). In addition, Bhutto and Sharif will certainly demand a say in choosing this reconstituted administration to oversee the elections. They will also request a more neutral election commission to replace the present body, which is seen as being Musharraf's political tool. What the two former leaders won't be able to agree on is a unified stance toward the Supreme Court, whose most independent-minded judges, including the Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, were sacked when Musharraf declared emergency rule on Nov. 3. While they both agree they want an "independent" judiciary, Bhutto has said that the question of reinstating the justices should be a matter for a new parliament to decide after the election. Sharif is demanding an immediate restoration of the judges as a prerequisite for participating in the polls. It's hard to see how Bhutto and Sharif can bridge that gap.
Whether Bhutto and Sharif can manage to work out a compromise may be irrelevant, because Musharraf seems to be happy with the status quo. He most certainly will not bring back the cashiered judges, who were poised to rule that his re-election as president was unconstitutional. Nor does he want to rejigger the regime-friendly interim government or the election commission. "Musharraf sees that everything is going his way, so he has no incentive to compromise," says one Western diplomat in Islamabad. Musharraf is also confident that this last-minute attempt at opposition unity will fail, foreign diplomats say. Bhutto has already made it abundantly clear that even though she suspects the polls will be rigged, she and her Pakistan People's Party will run, not wanting to leave the political field wide open for Musharraf's allies. She can protest any irregularities afterward, she says. "I'm sure the PPP will participate," predicts Pakistani political scientist Hasan Askari Rizvi. If she does decide to run, as expected, Sharif will be left with little choice but to follow her lead. Otherwise, he and his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) would be politically frozen out. "Nawaz may be playing to the gallery, shoring up his democratic stance before plunging into the elections," says Ayaz Amir, a respected political columnist and a candidate for parliament under Sharif's banner.
While neither Bhutto nor Sharif is likely to boycott the polls, they are making political hay by publicly presenting their list of demands to Musharraf and the public, setting the stage perhaps for postelection protests. So far Sharif has played a smart game. He returned from exile in Saudi Arabia without having concluded a back-channel agreement with the unpopular Musharraf, as Bhutto did. Through her negotiations she won amnesty from a host of corruption charges but may have lost some popularity as a result. Sharif, rather, has gotten a political bounce from his demands for the deposed judges' return and his threats of an electoral boycott. He points to the electoral commission's recent rejection of his and his younger brother's candidacy for the upcoming polls as proof that the voting will be rigged. Sharif has been disqualified on the grounds of previous criminal convictions, following his ouster by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, and his brother Shahbaz, a popular former governor of Punjab, for failure to repay a loan. The Sharifs claim the charges are politically motivated. But Sharif has not dwelt on his disqualification. Rather he is trying to turn it into a political advantage. "Let them reject the nominations 10 times or even 100 times," he told a crowd of supporters in Islamabad on Monday. "I will serve the people with much more vigor and resolve."
Most of his party's candidates seem to be hoping he will vigorously lead them into the election and soon, even though the outcome could be foreordained. "People are asking me, 'Is the PML-N serious? Are you boycotting or going ahead?'" says candidate Amir. Another candidate, Syeda Abida Hussain, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, says the opposition's chances look good if the voting is free and fair. "On the whole we are in a good position," says Hussain, a PPP parliamentary candidate who has been out on the hustings in southern Punjab for the past two weeks. "But we don't know how much ballot stuffing or rigging there will be at the polls." Amir, however, fears that the fix is already in. "Opposition parties are headed for a crash," he says. "Everything is skewed to our disadvantage … On the ground the district administration, the provincial government and the police are working for the PML-Q candidates," he adds. "How you can have a free and fair election in this environment really beats me."
While Musharraf has released most of the thousands of judges, lawyers, opposition politicians and political and human rights activists his security forces arrested in his early-November crackdown, he is keeping the heat on key figures he considers a threat. Several Supreme Court justices, including former chief justice Chaudhry, remain under house arrest, as is Aitzaz Ahsan, a charismatic lawyer and PPP stalwart. Police even refused to allow U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson to meet Ahsan yesterday despite repeated requests. On Tuesday outspoken political columnist and university professor Rasul Bakhsh Rais was served with an arrest warrant on charges of "disturbing public order." Two of his students and three other professors at Lahore University of Management Sciences were also served with warrants and ordered to report to the local police station Tuesday. Such continued harassment of political activists does not augur well for the upcoming vote.
Many Pakistanis see these repressive moves as proof that Musharraf is determined to get a friendly parliament elected next month at any cost. "Musharraf has made up his mind that he wants a favorable parliament no matter what," says political scientist and columnist Rizvi. "He knows he can't afford a hostile parliament." But if Pakistanis perceive that the polls have been rigged, they could conceivably take to the streets in protest. "If there is rigging, the logical consequence would be mass agitation, a popular upsurge against Pervez Musharraf," says PPP candidate Hussain.
Indeed, it seems increasingly unlikely that the election will lead to the political stability it is meant to achieve. "Whether the opposition takes part in the election or not, no one will accept the results," predicts Amir. "Benazir and Nawaz will say that they took part in the elections merely to expose the regime's machinations. Then the protest will begin." Rizvi agrees: "The election is not going to solve any of Pakistan's domestic problems, because Musharraf and his effort to hang on to power at any cost is the core issue."
In the wake of a disputed election, there may be even less room for political compromise than there is now. "As long as Musharraf stays, you will not have a coherent and stable political process in Pakistan," adds Rizvi. And there is no doubt that Musharraf is determined to stay exactly where he is.