It is less than a month until Pakistan is due to hold a parliamentary election that could stabilize the country after months of political turmoil and terrorist violence, or plunge it deeper into chaos. So naturally some of the country's leading civilian politicians were busy campaigning last week -- in Washington.
A senior delegation from the Pakistan People's Party, headed until her assassination Dec. 27 by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and Imran Khan, the former cricket star who now leads his own small centrist party, made the rounds of congressional offices, think tanks and the media to argue a couple of basic points: first, that the election should go forward, despite indications that President Pervez Musharraf is maneuvering to postpone it once again; and second, that the Bush administration's simultaneous public support for Musharraf and for a free and fair election is a contradiction -- one that could touch off Pakistan's implosion if it is not resolved before Election Day.
Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999 and extended his mandate as president last fall with a second suspension of the constitution, seems to understand the danger very well. Polls show that if the election is free, voters will turn out overwhelmingly for opposition parties committed to the reversal of his latest rewrite of the constitution, his firing and detention of senior judges, and his imposition of controls on the media. If the opposition gains two-thirds of parliament -- something that is entirely possible -- Musharraf could be impeached; at best, he would be stripped of much of his power.
Opposition leaders are convinced that Musharraf and his party apparatus intend to rig the balloting, much as Pakistan's last parliamentary poll in 2002 was falsified. The aim would be to hand the balance of power in the new parliament to Musharraf's own political party, which polls show is supported by under 30 percent of voters. But Pakistanis are far less willing to accept the ex-general's manipulations today than they were five years ago, when he was relatively popular. If the regime announces a clearly fraudulent result, it risks touching off an explosion of public protest that it might not be able to contain.
"We can't stop the people of Pakistan, and they cannot tolerate another stolen election," said Palwasha Behram Khan of the People's Party. "That would definitely create a mass movement."
Said Imran Khan, at an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: "The chances are that we will have a Kenya-type situation where people are not going to accept the election result."
The prospect of a "people power" revolution, or worse, explains why Musharraf already postponed the election by five weeks and why political circles in Pakistan are abuzz with the possibility of another delay. Sherry Rehman, central information secretary of the People's Party, says the party fears a third coup by Musharraf that would delay elections for a year or more while installing a new government that includes some opposition figures.
Rehman said that Bhutto's party, which has led in the polls for months, is committed to going through with elections even if it knows they will be manipulated. "We will fight in every polling place," she said.
What worries the visiting Pakistanis is that the Bush administration, which has stubbornly continued to support Musharraf even as his support in Pakistan has melted away, will tolerate an attempt to suspend or rig the election, despite its recent rhetoric about wanting a free vote. Their aim is to persuade Washington to choose a genuinely free election over Musharraf -- and to press that priority now, before it is too late.
Imran Khan says the administration should insist that Musharraf reinstate the 60 judges he fired and placed under house arrest and let the courts supervise the elections. "It's very important that people in the United States -- that lawmakers in the United States -- realize that the strategy of backing one man, rather than the democratic process, is deeply flawed," he said. He said Democratic senators he met, including Majority Leader Harry Reid and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, accepted this point.
The problem lies in a shrinking group of administration officials -- including President Bush -- who refuse to abandon Musharraf. Rehman pointed out that even the Pakistani army, under its new chief of staff, has distanced itself from the former military ruler. "His support has disappeared in Pakistan, and he's now down to a small patch in Washington at the State Department and Pentagon," she said. The question is whether Musharraf will get the message from those last allies that they will not support him in another strike against Pakistani democracy.