December 25, 2007 -- AS the Pakistani election campaign enters its final phase, one thing is increasingly clear: This could be a make-or-break moment for the fragile nation-state that emerged from the partition of India six decades ago.
A good election, the results of which are accepted by all mainstream parties, might see the nation through one of its most serious crises. A bad election, perceived as a fraudulent exercise, could unleash the dark forces advocating violence and terror as the main tools of power.
Although Pakistan was built as an expression of statehood for Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, its legitimacy as a state included other factors. One was an implicit understanding that the new state would be based on the rule of law and that its governments would be chosen and dismissed through elections. Despite several decades of military rule, most Pakistanis have remained deeply attached to pluralist politics as expressed through multiparty elections.
Since the 1980s, Islam - the initial source of Pakistan's unity as a nation not to say its very raison d'etre - has turned into a divisive element. Pakistanis are fighting one another over rival understandings of Islam's role in society. While sectarian violence in India has begun to fade in the last decade or so, religious feuds have become a feature of life in many parts of Pakistan. Last year alone, an estimated 2,000 people died in sectarian violence.
Islam, a liberating factor for Pakistanis in the 1940s, has become an instrument of oppression in the hands of radical fundamentalist groups and parties peddling a narrow religious vision. Today, the attachment to pluralist politics represents the principal factor of unity in Pakistan. Undermine that, and you shall threaten the very legitimacy of the Pakistani state.
Pakistan consists of at least four distinct ethnic and linguistic groups, all with the attributes of nationhood. The Punjabis, the Sindis, the Baluch and the Pathan can stay together in the framework of a single nation-state only on the basis of constantly renewed consent. And that consent can only be expressed through elections held under rules accepted by all.
The coming election had a bad start, if only because it followed a state of emergency imposed by President Pervez Musharraf. His actions stoked fears that he might use the emergency to "arrange" the election results to suit his own schemes.
Now, however, it's clear that the emergency was a coup against the Supreme Court whose members were preparing to annul Musharraf's re-election as president. There's little doubt that the judges, who have since been replaced, were more motivated by politics than points of law. Having neutralized the judges, Musharraf seems to have decided not to "arrange" the results of the election. He has resigned as head of the army and lifted the state of emergency in time for elections. In recent days, he has also eased restrictions on media coverage of opposition activities.
Giving Musharraf the benefit of the doubt, one might assume that he's sincere in his admiration for the "Turkish model," in which the armed forces act as the ultimate guarantors of constitutional rule. He's the first of Pakistan's five military rulers to seek legitimacy as president through elections. He's also the first to preside over a general election to decide who would form the next government under a prime minister.
But a number of glitches have marred the current electoral exercise.
* Musharraf has failed to persuade all parties to contest the elections. Although the largest parties, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Muslim League, have decided to participate, a coalition of smaller parties have called for a boycott of the polls. By doing so, these parties have echoed the boycott call from radical Islamists linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda. The coalition, calling itself the All-Party Democratic Movement (APDM) has nothing in common with either the Taliban or al Qaeda, but is providing political cover for the extremist groups.
* Another unfortunate event was the decision to prevent former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz from standing for election as leaders of the main branch of the Muslim League. To be sure, the two brothers aren't choirboys and their exclusion from politics may not be a tragedy. The electorate, however, should have decided their political fate, not a judge acting on instructions from the president's office.
* Also unfortunate is the use of the resources of the state, in some cases even military transport, to help candidates perceived as friendly to the president. Such misuse of state resources on Election Day might well undermine the credibility of the results.
Happily, the opposition parties, spearheaded by the center-left PPP under former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, have gone out of their way to make the elections possible. Despite its obvious attraction, they have resisted the siren call for boycott. They have also tried to broaden the debate beyond the role that the president should play in the emerging system.
Having dramatically broken a deal she made with Musharraf last autumn, Bhutto has nevertheless kept all avenues open for future co-operation on the basis of her program as endorsed by the electorate.
Musharraf seems to be doing all he can to make sure that Bhutto's party doesn't emerge as the largest bloc in the new parliament. Many in Islamabad see this as a result of Musharraf's personal grudges against the former prime minister.
The fact, however, is that Musharraf needs Bhutto and the two Sharif brothers if he is to promote a patriotic front against Taliban-style extremism.
The outside powers with influence in Pakistan should do all they can to ensure the integrity of the forthcoming elections. A good election that reflects the true sentiments of the Pakistani people at this point would represent a major defeat for the forces of obscurantist terror. A bad election could keep Pakistan as the principal battleground in the global War on Terror for many more years.