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?
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.
The most notorious blasphemy provision, found in Section 295-C of the lawbooks, reads: "Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad ... shall be punished with death and shall also be liable to a fine."
Parties of the left and right, civilian and military, used the laws to justify further intrusions. Until recently Christians could vote only in separate elections held for "minorities." Government routinely confiscated church-owned property.
"The Pakistan People's Party under the late democratic president Zulifqar Ali Bhutto handicapped us by taking our institutions, and the Pakistan Muslim League under military general Zia Ul Haq punished us by instituting the discriminatory laws like the 295-C blasphemy law," said Pakistani-American Victor Gill, who directs Philadelphia-based Christian Voice of Pakistan. "The dirge of Pakistani Christians speaks for itself-abandoned and forgotten by Westerners who converted them to Christianity and oppressed by their own countrymen who talk peace but practice otherwise."
Pakistan has been anything but forgotten in the calculations of Washington since the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States. One year ago the Bush administration released $600 million in aid to Pakistan-what the Pentagon calls a reimbursement for support received in Operation Enduring Freedom. A $1.3 billion poverty-reduction program by the International Monetary Fund followed. With U.S. prodding, the Paris Club of donor countries agreed to restructure another $12.5 billion in debt (Pakistan has about $36 billion in foreign debt).
In exchange, Pakistan dropped its pre-9/11 relations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It began to furnish law enforcement and intelligence for the war on terrorism. Christian activists now want the Bush administration to press Mr. Musharraf anew. "Loan forgiveness should be tied to toleration and reformation and human rights," said Mr. Gill.
The Bush administration is adhering to more general persuasion. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told a Sept.30 meeting of Pakistani business leaders, "It is no secret and doesn't bear a lot of elaboration here that, to this day, some of the worst schools for religious extremism, unfortunately, are in Pakistan." That is why, he said, "the vision President Musharraf has articulated of returning Pakistan to civilian rule is so important."
Absent specified pressure, Mr. Musharraf will not do away with blasphemy laws. Questioned about the laws in a recent meeting with the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (which represents Christians, Sikhs, and Parsis), Mr. Musharraf told director Shahbaz Bhatti that his government "would not compromise on Islamic issues." Later a spokesman was more explicit, telling a reporter, "The Musharraf government says it has no intention either to amend the Constitution for the purpose of doing away with the provisions ... or repeal the blasphemy laws."
With threats against churches and Christian organizations, security is multiplying. Parishioners entering Karachi's St. Michael's Catholic Church last week filed past police stationed behind stacked sandbags.
In a hushed atmosphere, they one-by-one endured body and handbag searches under the watch of four submachine-gun-toting officers in the church courtyard. The procedures are part of a stepped-up security campaign at Christian institutions throughout Pakistan after the Sept. 25 massacre in Karachi.
Not all Christians favor the new level of security. "We are entering the house of God, a place of peace and prayer," lamented David Qadir upon entering St. Michael's. "It's not fair that we have to feel as though we are entering a prison."
And church leaders recognize the measures offer only a short-term solution. "You cannot raise the people who died," said Mr. Gill. "But people who have yet to die and have been targeted can enlist us to make noise and to protect them."
Mr. Gill, like many in Pakistan's small (2 percent of the population) Christian community, had close ties to recent victims. His brother-in-law, Ghulam Masih, was among 16 Christians massacred in Bahawalpur during a Sunday worship service one year ago. Aslam Martin, one of the victims of the Sept. 25 shooting, was a close friend. Mr. Martin wrote a widely distributed article against the blasphemy laws in the monthly magazine Jafa Kash ("Hard Worker"). It likely led to the attack on him and his co-workers at Karachi's Institute for Peace and Justice.