December 7, 2007

Pakistani Boycott Looks Unlikely

The opposition parties in Pakistan cannot agree on a joint list of demands to present to Pervez Musharraf in return for their participation in next month's parliamentary elections. Benazir Bhutto has expressed skepticism regarding the benefits of a boycott in any case, and Nawaz Sharif may find himself forced into contesting the election in order to keep up with his rival:

Pakistani opposition parties have failed to reach agreement on demands to set the government to ensure their participation in next month's election, making a united opposition boycott increasingly unlikely.

Former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, both recently back from years in exile, are trying to forge a "charter of demands" to present to President Perez Musharraf to ensure a fair election and their participation.

A boycott by the two main opposition parties and smaller allies would deprive the vote of credibility and prolong instability that has raised concern about the nuclear-armed U.S. ally and its efforts to fight growing Islamist militancy.

After three days of talks the parties have agreed on 13 demands they hope will allow a fair vote, including ensuring the neutrality of a caretaker government made up Musharraf supporters and reconstituting the Election Commission.

But they have been unable to agree on whether to demand the restoration of dozens of judges dismissed by Musharraf after he imposed emergency rule on November 3, and whether to set the government a deadline to meet their demands.

Musharraf will find the thirteen demands a basis for negotiation, but a restoration of the judges he removed from the court would be a deal-breaker. The entire point of the emergency order -- still in effect-- was to get rid of judges that blocked his efforts to transition his presidency to civilian status, as well as ridding the judiciary of judges sympathetic to the radical Islamists. Musharraf will not risk their return now, and Sharif knows it.

Sharif wants to stop the parliamentary elections; a coordinated boycott eliminates the risk of getting marginalized as a consequence of a boycott. Bhutto obviously disagrees. She sees a boycott as a useful threat to wring concessions from Musharraf, who needs the election to quiet international critics of his regime. She does not see the boycott as an end to itself and clearly does not want to incite more chaos and instability as an end in itself. That's why she won't agree to the demand on the judiciary, and why she sees it as an issue for the parliament that will take its place after the January elections.

Bhutto's refusal to make impossible demands will force Sharif's party into the elections. Barring any sudden changes by Musharraf -- or a lack of change in the emergency decree, which Musharraf planned to lift in nine days -- the opposition will settle with Musharraf on a few face-saving demands. Musharraf will get his election, and the opposition will focus their efforts on winning enough seats to create a majority coalition to oppose Musharraf. Hopefully, after that, Musharraf and the army can focus on fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban.


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