Millions of Pakistani voters will exercise their right to choose on October 10. Unfortunately they do not have much to choose from given the constitutional-tinkering, legal wrangling, horse-trading and loyalty swapping that has left the electorate awash in confusion, if not eternally disillusioned.
The sum: most candidates are certified thugs and highly inept.
While General Pervaiz Musharraf - who overthrew the democratically elected government of Nawaz Sharif three years ago in a coup - has already given himself a five-year mandate to continue as Pakistan's president, he has barred leaders of the two main political parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif from fighting the elections saying both are convicts. As his redoubt, Musharraf has put in place a National Security Council "to check the loot and plunder as well as misrule." These measures according to him "are aimed at injecting sustainability into the democratic system so that it does not get derailed."
Hoping the next five years will be a period of democratic consolidation, the upbeat General predicts, "It will, in fact, be the crowning of all the political reforms programs."
His is the lone voice of optimism in Pakistan's political wilderness.
Billed as "soulless", many election-watchers point to a past caring mindset of the intellectual and educated classes, who appear to be uninvolved and detached from developments occurring right under their eyes: of candidates, chameleon-like changing their loyalties or some political parties themselves being morphed into one night stands. Others have hobbled together gauche startups overnight, pulled out from the current political flotsam and hanging together, the only commonality among its disparate heavyweights being a win-win situation grounded in their family connections and plenty of financial resources.
Nor have many political pundits seriously conducted hair splitting exercises, challenging or debating (publicly or privately) the scores of party manifestos. Only because most of it is old hat plus plenty of hot air. Over time, manifestos are only worth the paper they are printed on. As evidenced by fifteen years of pernicious misrule and endemic corruption when Bhutto and Sharif presided over the destinies of a poverty-stricken population of 140 million, serving alternately as two-term prime ministers and each time getting kicked out before completing their full terms.
Men (that includes women) and not manifestos matter in the end.
Pugnacious as the Pakistani press is and granted that it has made several incursions into the political malfeasance responsible for withering of the democratic process via its intrusive journeys delving into the realm of investigative journalism versus political advocacy, still, the press has not been successful in swaying public opinion one way or the other. Nor has it managed to defeat the Establishment's "imposed silence and normalized quiet of power," as Edward Said so succinctly puts it while delineating the role of a writer.
One reason for lack of cohesion is the unfestive literacy rate that has stymied the masses from access to information presented by a vibrant press. Throngs of voters will, therefore, stand in line to vote not for change, but for the same leaders who have once too many elections, won and re-kindled their own pelf and power while spiking the dreams of thousands for a better tomorrow.
The judicial process too has egregiously left the voters in the lurch. Instead of providing clarity and vision through its sphere of influence, it has muddied the political scenario and dawdled into legal minutiae that has made many forever to lose hope for a just civil order. Leaders of two political parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif live in exile. There are scores of corruption charges against them and while the courts have sentenced them in absentia, the man on the street in Pakistan thinks that it is pure persecution and personal vendetta of General Musharraf that is keeping the two populists out.
Whatever the reason, Pakistan's elections have been a non-issue for the news hungry media in the US. Ms Bhutto has come and gone without causing waves. The Wall Street Journal carried a small item in its front page World Briefing section : "A Pakistani court adjourned until November a hearing on ex-Premier Bhutto's petition to be allowed to run in next week's elections, effectively foreclosing her plan to return." Several months ago, announcing in New York, Benazir said she will return triumphantly to Pakistan for the elections and accompanying her will be the cream of American media.
With General Musharraf having bagged Bush's pleasure and caught the eye of the American media, Ms Bhutto made a valiant attempt at a comeback on Fox TV, claiming: "I believe that September 2001 would not have taken place when I was prime minister. The two attacks on the World Trade Center, the two attacks on the two U.S. embassies in Africa, and the Cole ship in Yemen all took place when my party and I were in opposition."
She desperately tried convincing the Americans that Musharraf is in sync with terrorists and that he 'feared' her return because, "I stopped the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan. Until my government was overthrown, the Taliban were unable to break off talks with the U.N. After my overthrow, they invited in Osama. And he set up Al Qaeda. So I think they (Musharraf) do fear my return."
She also admitted to a low level 'contact' with the White House and State Department, "Of course, I'd like high level contact, but for the time being, that's the contact I have."
The blustery Bush administration's rapid-fire decisions have resulted in literally underwriting the presidency of General Musharraf and handing him a solid endorsement just two weeks before the elections. George W Bush has said US and Pakistan "stand shoulder-to-shoulder, working to eliminate international terrorism". Exactly the opposite of Ms Bhutto's lamentations during her recent trip to the US.
While she urged "Washington should not patronize dictators", Bush has responded by pledging Musharraf $1 billion in debt write off.
Praising Islamabad as "a vital and stalwart friend and a key partner for the United States," Bush says his government is "marshaling hundreds of millions of dollars" in additional resources and expertise to assist Pakistan in training teachers, modernizing curriculums and providing more healthcare services to its most needy citizens.
In the present Pakistan-US trajectory, Pentagon has provided yet more meat for Pakistanis to chew on: their ringing support saying, "We have an interest in working together with Pakistan's armed forces to address Pakistan's security concerns and help enhance its conventional defense capabilities."
Timing is the key. It so happens that Musharraf was around at the right time and at the right place when Al Qaeda struck. Today, many western leaders, including newly-elected German Chancellor Schroeder, will give their right arm to be 'tight' with Bush as Musharraf is.