Pakistan's Best Chance

Rarely in situations of such volatility as Pakistan faces today is the objective so clear. Pakistan needs stability. The greatest threat to the country derives from internal terrorism, lawlessness and fractured regional politics.

Can national stability best be secured through a strongman government of the kind offered by President Pervez Musharraf? Or is stability best guaranteed through a democratic election that restores civilian rule committed to cracking down on extremist violence, building the rule of law and delivering services to the people? Benazir Bhutto promoted the second option. Tragically, she died doing so.

The former prime minister's assassination is being called a victory for the forces of extremism and a heavy setback for the cause of democracy. Her murder brought down an eloquent advocate for both a progressive state and society and more aggressive policies against al-Qaeda and domestic terrorists.

Many may argue for proceeding with the parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8. The hope is that free and fair elections could calm the anger over the events of this week and prevent a return to military dictatorship.

The trouble with this thinking is that most Pakistanis believe the election process is already unfree and unfair. Changes Musharraf made to the courts and constitution during the six-week period of emergency rule this fall had tilted the process in his favor long before Bhutto's death. These elections are already too tainted to win public credibility.

We believe the path to a stable Pakistan does begin with elections, but not through the process that is unfolding. What Pakistan needs is a pause and then a bold regrouping. Elections are an opportunity, however challenging, to change the tenor and course of Pakistani politics -- of being a transforming event.

If Musharraf is to remain president, he should quickly reach out to all political parties in a spirit of national reconciliation. This represents the best hope of saving Pakistan from an extended period of instability. His first step should be to name a neutral caretaker government, one whose members are selected on the basis of consultation with the major political groups.

Musharraf would instantly win national approval if he reappointed the Supreme Court justices he deposed during emergency rule; this would be a magnanimous gesture of his commitment to building an independent judiciary. A new federal election commission, willing and capable of enforcing its own regulations, must be named, and the present campaigning restrictions must be lifted. The authorities should also update the gerry-built electoral rolls to better insure against disenfranchising some voters and allowing others to cast fraudulent ballots. Government limitations on media coverage of politics should be lifted. Most critical, the administration of elections must be taken out of the hands of local officials, many of whom are loyal to the governing party above all else.

Ideally, out of this new political chemistry, another breed of leaders will emerge -- one defined by a commitment to democratic principles and values rather than family or regional affiliation. From its current low point, Pakistan has a rare chance for renewal or, even more boldly, reinvention.

An election held without these changes would result in victors who lack credibility and would almost certainly provoke a violent backlash. Reforming the process and establishing ground rules among the parties in a new political compact will take months. But these changes can be conducted in a spirit of inclusion and transparency so that a longer process of change does not appear as just an excuse for extending Musharraf's dictatorial powers. Above all, the military must stand back from the political scene and exercise its legitimate role of defending the nation and constitution.

The U.S. role in Pakistan is delicate. Our relationship is with the Pakistani people, not one man or one institution. Our close embrace of Pervez Musharraf (and, to an extent, Benazir Bhutto) contributes to his unpopularity and to low U.S. approval ratings in Pakistan. We must support honest attempts to foster reconciliation across civil society. Above all, the U.S. administration must not be seen to be engineering a political outcome. This is the surest way to undermine what we are hopeful of achieving. The United States has a high stake in Pakistan's stability, but we must leave the selection of Pakistan's leaders to the Pakistani people.

Wendy Chamberlin, president of the Middle East Institute and served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from 2001 to 2002 and Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute and a former Pakistan and Afghanistan analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. The views expressed here are those of the authors; the Middle East Institute does not take positions on Middle East policy.