- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

As Pakistanis vote today for new legislators and provincial governments, the Bush administration faces a delicate balancing act. Even before the election, Gen. Pervez Musharraf was fairly criticized for undermining the integrity of the vote in a number of ways. And problems with the election could reflect back on the United States, since Pakistan's leader has become so close to President Bush that he is jokingly referred to as "Busharraf" in Pakistan and beyond. But given Mr. Musharraf's important help in the war on terror, Mr. Bush must be careful to preserve the friendship. In the final analysis, though, Pakistan has reaped handsome dividends from its cooperation with America and the White House may have more leverage than it is currently exercising. With a steady hand, the Bush administration could urge Mr. Musharraf to allow democracy to take root incrementally. By failing to take careful action, the United States could face other threats in Pakistan.
Today's elections were mandated by a 1999 Supreme Court decision, which followed the bloodless coup that brought Mr. Musharraf to power. But he won't be up for election. In order to circumvent a vote on Pakistan's leadership, Mr. Musharraf held a referendum which he claims, unconvincingly, proves his mandate to rule for the next five years.
Also, Mr. Musharraf has set comically arbitrary guidelines for the election, preventing anyone who doesn't have a college education, has ever defaulted on a loan or failed to pay utility bills from running. Pakistan's leaders of the two main political parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, have been barred from participating. The campaign period was cut from 90 days to 40 days, making it more difficult for the opposition to counter the political messages of state-run radio and television channels. Mr. Musharraf also has given the military a permanent policy-making role in government by writing constitutional amendments, which can now only be overturned with a two-thirds majority in the new legislature.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has benefited from its close U.S. ties. It has rescheduled $3 billion in debt with U.S. institutions and may write-off another $1 billion. The International Monetary Fund has resumed a $1.3 billion loan program it had previously suspended. In January, Pakistan will reschedule $12.5 billion of debt with Paris Club creditors. This help has been in part responsible for the 60 percent rise in Pakistan's stock index this year the world's best performance. Pakistan's role in Afghanistan's reconstruction, both current and anticipated, is also bolstering Pakistani stocks. While America needs Pakistan, Pakistan also needs America.
Mr. Musharraf's attempts to marginalize secular, established and historically pro-American parties could strengthen the power of Islamic fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are expected to capture only a few seats in the legislature anywhere from 10 to 20 out of 342. But they are expected to gain power in areas critical to U.S. interests, such as the region along the border with Afghanistan. And with the military's strengthened role, Pakistan's positions on the disputed region of Kashmir could become radicalized a frightening prospect, since both Pakistan and India are nuclear powers.
The Bush administration therefore faces risks in allowing Mr. Musharraf to undermine the elective process. But Mr. Bush must be careful not to overplay his hand. America's alliance with Pakistan and stability in that country are paramount to U.S. interests.


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