Dictator or deliverer?

Pakistan | The votes now cast and counted in this dangerous nation, the United States still must wait to see whether its investment in Army-general-turned-President Pervez Musharraf will pay off

Issue: "GOP: No room for error," Oct. 19, 2002

With opponents of the government blocked from the ballot, missile tests underway, and churches on guard-Pakistan looked ready for another routine nationwide election. For a country that since its creation in 1947 has fought three wars with neighboring India, that seesaws between civilian and military rule, election-eve drama is just one more thing.

But the stakes in post-election Pakistan are high for the West. The Bush administration has invested $2 billion there under President Pervez Musharraf to ensure its support in the war on terror. Will that cooperation continue?

Westerners are under attack from homegrown Islamic jihadists, including Taliban remnants, who seek sanctuary within its borders from the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Christians in Pakistan are particularly vulnerable to them, with 39 dead in high-profile attacks since the war began a year ago. Will a newly formed government do more to protect these minorities?

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The voting itself is historic, given that Mr. Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup. He suspended the constitution and threw out the civilian government of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after banishing him to Saudi Arabia. Mr. Musharraf, who was president and the army's top general at the time, won grudging praise for the move to rein in the corruption and incompetence then flourishing under Mr. Sharif. The Supreme Court ordered him to hold elections within three years of the takeover. Mr. Musharraf earned praise in the West for cutting ties with Afghanistan and supporting the U.S.-led battle against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

Mr. Musharraf is banking on a reputation for steering toward continuity a country that seems to prefer chaos. That chaos was never more apparent than during elections, when at least six people were killed in shootouts at the polls. In Bara, a town west of Peshawar, supporters of an Islamic cleric running for parliament fired on a plane dropping leaflets for his opposition. The shots killed the pilot. Security was heavy in Karachi, where Islamic extremists murdered seven Christian workers on Sept. 25. Authorities sent to the streets 14,000 extra policemen, some with bomb-sniffing dogs. Army helicopters kept watch from above. Karachi's 4 million voters poured into fewer than 4,000 polling stations to cast votes for 634 candidates vying for the city's 20 general parliamentary seats.

But even as the people had their say, community leaders voiced growing alarm that-with or without an election endorsement-Mr. Musharraf is looking more like a dictator than a deliverer. "People are beginning to suspect Mr. Musharraf is playing a double game, pleasing the West as well as his homegrown terrorists," said one Christian leader, who asked not to be named because of the threat of more violence against Christians.

Mr. Musharraf maneuvered earlier this year to hold onto his own office no matter how the elections turned out. He contrived a nationwide referendum last April to extend his term of office by five years, regardless of who is named prime minister. The opposition cried foul, claiming the referendum was unconstitutional, undemocratic, and flawed. The Supreme Court sided with Mr. Musharraf but ordered elections to move forward.

Acting ahead of the installation of an elected parliament, Mr. Musharraf imposed 29 constitutional amendments, most of them related to the elections. Stringent eligibility rules for candidates excluded serious opposition, including former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. One new provision outlawed candidates who don't hold university degrees-a standard that bars from office 90 percent of the population and one-third of former lawmakers.

At the same time the government approved, and a court seconded, permission for jailed Islamic leader Maulana Azam Tariq to run for parliament. Mr. Tariq leads Sipaha-e-Sahaba, a Sunni militant group believed to have ties to Osama bin Laden and suspected of attacks against Christians. The group was one of five outlawed by Mr. Musharraf last January.

That double standard, coupled with violent attacks, propelled Christians into the streets. Breaking a vow to lay low while the United States is at war in neighboring Afghanistan, thousands risked further recriminations with public protest. Thousands blocked roads outside Karachi's main cathedral. They demanded government protection from violence.

Expatriate Pakistani Christians also launched a protest movement. They met with the new ambassador to the United States, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi. They organized street demonstrations set in major cities for Ottawa on Oct. 7; New York, Oct. 10; Washington, Oct. 15; and Toronto, Oct. 16.

Such activists are concerned about more than the well-publicized violence. In everyday Pakistan, Christians face routine discrimination and so-called honor killings that rarely make the headlines. These are based on the country's infamous blasphemy laws, which date back to Pakistan's formation when it seceded from India over Muslim-Hindu violence.


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