Saturday, February 16, 2008

Fasten Your Seatbelts for Pakistan’s Elections...It Might be a Bumpy Ride

IRI Pulls Out of Pakistan Election Monitoring

The Washington Post’s Robin Wright reported on the State Department’s mad scramble to find somebody to monitor Pakistan’s general election on February 18.

Seems the International Republican Institute, the ostensibly independent organization that does the polling and monitoring in countries where the U.S. cares about democracy, notified the State Department on January 30 that they weren’t going to do it.

This is a highly significant development--and possibly the sign of deep and dangerous rot in America's Pakistan policy.

McClatchy, as usual, was ahead of the pack with its coverage.

Back on January 25, Jonathan Landay wrote :

Privately, Pakistani officials have assured the Bush administration that U.S. and European Union monitoring teams will have free access to election sites and won’t be subject to the extensive restrictions that Pakistani election officials outlined last month, U.S. officials said.

But Pakistan is refusing to reconsider a regulation that bars monitors from conducting exit polls, said Lorne W. Craner, the president of the International Republican Institute, a U.S. democracy promotion group that planned to send dozens of election monitors to Pakistan.

“It’s very unusual not to be able to do an exit poll,” said Craner, explaining that such surveys provide an independent means of verifying official election results.

“An exit poll or a parallel vote tabulation is an extra assurance of the legitimacy of the election,” he said.

A potentially bigger issue is whether the IRI will even organize monitoring in light of the risks to Americans in Pakistan. Americans have been the frequent targets of attacks by Islamic insurgents allied with al-Qaida and Taliban extremists from Afghanistan, and Craner said the IRI has a “very big” concern with security.

I take the security issue was not an expression of concern that Pakistan is dangerous for Americans, though it certainly is.

It probably had more to do with the fact that Musharraf is hostile to the IRI and his promises to provide security for IRI personnel were viewed with skepticism. The Musharraf administration has a bad track record of providing security for people—like Benazir Bhutto—that it doesn’t really like.

Musharraf has good reason to dislike the IRI. Its most recent poll allowed the opposition PPP to claim a mandate-worthy 50% support going into the election.

That’s an awfully high number. The Terror Free Tomorrow poll, conducted over the same period, gave a support level of 36.5% to the PPP, something that seems much more reasonable.

Even the anti-Musharraf domestic media expressed concern about the encouragement that poll result would give to opportunistic politicians (i.e. PPP co-chairman and Bhutto widower Asif Zardari) interested in using allegations of a tainted elections as a jumping off point for a people power power play.

However, reading between the lines, as we do compulsively at China Matters, there’s something more than security concerns going on.

The IRI has been in Islamabad since last August preparing for this election. It knows the environment it’s dealing with, and had a chance to make security arrangements.

The sticking point was probably Musharraf’s unwillingness to allow exit polls.

I don’t blame him, since IRI exit polls have been a crucial ingredient in color-coded revolutions from the Ukraine to Georgia to Kyrgyzstan.

Elections are held, the opposition cries fraud and cites the IRI exit polls as evidence of skullduggery, a big crowd of people stages a sit-in at some big square in the capital, the United States expresses its heartfelt concerns and anxieties for democracy in country X, NGOs provide material support for the protesters so they can keep country X in political limbo, the government finally gives up and quits...etc.

One can understand Musharraf’s desire to short circuit that kind of process at the earliest possible link.

So no IRI exit polls.

The key question in this game within a game is the attitude of the U.S. government.

The previous color coded revolutions were all about poking a stick in Vladimir Putin’s eye.

Pakistan is different.

Musharraf is our guy. I don’t think the Bush administration wants to go all Jimmy Carter and orchestrate the removal of a pro-U.S. strong man, like Carter did to Marcos in the Philippines.

Hosni Mubarak of Egypt wouldn’t like that. Neither would the guys who run Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates, etc.

The U.S. policy in Pakistan has been all about the extremely dubious and unlikely strategy of allying Musharraf with the PPP.

That’s why we engineered Benazir Bhutto’s return. She was supposed to do well in the elections and form a new government that would provide legitimacy and stability to Musharraf’s presidency.

It’s a strategy that has become less and less plausible as Musharraf’s popularity has cratered and 70% of Pakistanis—according to the IRI poll—want Musharraf to resign.

And there’s a chance that the PML-Q—Musharraf’s party and the party that was supposed to perform well enough to serve credibly as the PPP’s coalition party—would be decimated in a reasonably fair election, leaving the field open for a coalition government of the PPP and the religiously conservative, pro-Saudi, and anti-GWOT PML-N—something that the United States really doesn’t want.

According to the U.S. strategy, democracy was supposed to strengthen Musharraf.

Now it’s the one thing that could destroy him.

Rather ironic.

If I were to make a guess about our Pakistan strategy, it would be this:

We want a PPP/PML-Q coalition government.

The only way for the PML-Q to make a decent showing on February 18 is by vote rigging.

Musharraf knows that the U.S. is caught between its democratic rhetoric and the reality of its desperate wish that the PML-Q comes out well enough to ally with the PPP.

In other words, we want vote-rigging, even though we can’t publicly endorse it.

So Musharraf cuts the IRI out of the loop.

Musharraf knows Washington accepts his move—and a vote rigging strategy—and sure enough the State Department doesn’t raise a huge fuss.

In fact, it raises no fuss at all.

Instead, the State Department keeps the lid on the news about IRI while it scrambles around looking for somebody—anybody!—to show up to monitor the elections but do no exit polling.

Musharrf hunkers down, prepares to rig the elections and ride out the storm, assuming that the U.S. won’t back calls for his ouster.

Washington hopes that the PPP will be satisfied by gaining a plurality in the elections and ally with a PML-Q that squeezed into second place through vote rigging.

Problem is, this kind of coalition is extremely unpopular in Pakistan—only 11% of respondents in the IRI poll supported it.

The legitimacy and the effectiveness of the PPP would be undercut by participation in such an unpopular and fraudulent arrangement. Asif Zardari, trying to leverage his management of the U.S. relationship into the leadership of the PPP, might support it, but the rest of the PPP leadership opposes it.

So maybe we get our coalition, but the country blows up anyway.

Not much we can do about it.

Now I think all we have is a seatbelt strategy: we’re passengers on Pakistan’s runaway electoral bus.

All we can do is buckle our belts as our Pakistan strategy hits the wall on February 18, and hope we can walk away.

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