KARACHI - With general elections barely a month away, Pakistan"s major political parties have decided not to boycott the polls and take their chances in a situation where the media and the judiciary have been hobbled.
Unable to convince Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People"s Party (PPP) to agree to a boycott, her chief rival Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) announced on Sunday that the party has no choice but to participate. "After failing to get the PPP on board, he does not want the field to remain open for
President Pervez] Musharraf"s loyalists," said PML-N spokesman Ahsan Iqbal.
However, Sharif and his younger brother Shahbaz, who is known to be the brains behind the PML-N, will be unable to run. The Election Commission has disqualified both on the grounds that they were convicted in criminal cases (after being ousted from power in 1999 by Musharraf, who was then army chief).
Bhutto has said she did not see what purpose boycotting elections would serve, and announced that her party will participate in the elections "under protest". The PPP"s critics dismiss this as a ploy to get back into power.
Similar charges are leveled at Maulana Fazlur Rehman"s faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) which says that participating in the polls is the only way to emerge from the current political crisis. A JUI-F leader was reported as saying that boycotting the elections is against the spirit of the parliamentary process. "If some parties boycott the elections, but the voters go to the polling stations in large numbers, how will the boycotters allege that the elections were rigged," he asked.
The Awami National Party, with its stronghold in the high-stakes North-West Frontier Province, was also reluctant to leave the field open to its right-wing rivals.
The argument for the boycott was based on the premise that free and fair elections are impossible without an independent judiciary and media, and that the existing setup is prejudiced in favor of Musharraf and his supporters as the caretaker government does not include any opposition members, and the Election Commission of Pakistan is not an independent body.
Musharraf required the Supreme Court and High Court judges to take oath under his provisional constitution order (PCO) of November 3 that imposed a de facto martial law on the country. For the first time in Pakistan"s history, a majority of these judges refused. Many of the judges remain under house arrest.
Independent television and radio networks, initially banned from broadcasting in Pakistan, are back on air (except the largest Geo Television), but with severe constraints and conditions.
"Those who are determined to participate [in the elections] will only legitimize the present illegitimate system," said political analyst and former foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad. "No movement will survive once these elections are held and accepted by the world community. We might then have another United States-propped up Hosni Mubarak [of Egypt] in the making."
The All Pakistan Lawyers" Representatives Convention in Lahore on Saturday declared the December 23 general elections as an "eyewash" and unanimously decided to boycott them, observing that the polls cannot be fair, free and impartial under Musharraf, "the so-called caretaker government and the incomplete Election Commission".
"Civil society" - lawyers, students, human-rights activists and non-government organizations as well as the smaller political parties - also largely took a similar position. However, the most important stakeholders in the debate, the political parties, were divided on the issue. Over 60 are registered with the Election Commission.
The All-Pakistan Democratic Movement (APDM), one of the two major opposition alliances, had initially also taken this position, calling for a boycott unless the judges were restored by December 15. The decision was endorsed by twice-elected former prime minister Sharif"s PML-N, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan"s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) or Movement for Justice and the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Khan burned his bridges by publicly tearing up his nomination papers. "Any politician who participates in these fraudulent elections held under an unconstitutional and illegal PCO will be strengthening a dictator," he declared.
Since the PTI is not a mass-based party - it had only one seat in the National Assembly, held by Khan himself - this will not have too much impact, say analysts. But for Sharif, the stakes are higher. He has been forced to reconsider his stance in order not to leave the field open to another twice-elected former prime minister Bhutto, now a nominal ally in the fight against military rule in Pakistan.
The PPP is part of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, another opposition coalition, but she and Sharif are co-signatories to a Charter of Democracy aimed at pushing the military out of politics.
With both major parties now in the running, even rigged elections will only affect a couple of dozen seats, say analysts. In any case, the participation of these political forces will be a severe blow to the "king"s party", Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which has been ruling the roost along with Musharraf for the past five years. Also affected will be the "jihadis", the right-wing religious parties who joined hands as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal and made significant electoral inroads when Sharif and Bhutto were barred from contesting the 2002 elections.
Those who were against the boycott have been arguing that political participation is the only way to undo the Musharraf-imposed constitutional aberrations, and that boycotting the elections does not address the issue of how the judges are to be reinstated. High Court advocate Faisal Siddiqi explains, "The judges cannot be restored without participating in the election. The constitutional and politically realistic option of restoration is through the new assembly."
The PPP has taken a similar position. On Saturday, PPP senator Safdar Abbasi told a press conference that only Parliament can reinstate the deposed judges. To the question whether the PPP would reinstate them if voted to power, he said, "Let us see how many seats we get." Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
The popular president of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) Aitzaz Ahsan, himself a PPP candidate, under house arrest since the proclamation of emergency, sent a letter to lawyers on December 5 proposing a strategy in case all major parties decided to contest the elections, in order to "keep the issue of the "deposed" judges alive".
He suggested that the SCBA "while continuing to deny validity to this election, prescribes its own oath to be taken and signed by all candidates". The oath will require each deponent to swear that they will take the necessary moves to ensure the restoration of the "ousted" judges.
Prominent human-rights lawyer Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), speaking with Inter Press Service shortly before the APDM announced its decision on Sunday, said the HRCP had reached a middle-ground position after discussing the issue with its members and with several political parties. "We will welcome it if the political parties boycott the elections, but we should convince them to do so jointly. If they don"t, we are not going to condemn them."
While urging the opposition parties to participate in the election process, Musharraf has announced that he will lift the emergency on December 15 - a day ahead of the original date announced December 16 - an inauspicious date, commemorating the anniversary of the Pakistani army"s defeat in Bangladesh in 1971.
Some analysts speculate that had the political parties overwhelmingly boycotted the polls, Musharraf would have responded by extending the emergency.