TOPICS > Politics

Opposition Parties Slam Pakistani Election Postponement

January 2, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Pakistani opposition leaders criticized the government's decision to postpone parliamentary elections, a move they believe will benefit the ruling party, but said that they would still participate. Journalists discuss how the decision may impact the region's stability.
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JIM LEHRER: An election postponed in Pakistan. We start with a report from Inigo Gilmore of Independent Television News in Islamabad.

INIGO GILMORE, ITV News Special Correspondent: After 48 hours of dithering and delays, the country’s election commission finally turned out to announce its decision about national elections.

QAZI FAROOQ, Pakistan Chief Election Commissioner (through translator): As you know, after the tragic death of Benazir Bhutto, public institutions and normal life were badly affected. In light of all reports and consultations, we have decided that it is impossible to hold elections on January 8th.

INIGO GILMORE: He said the destruction of election commission offices, voting rolls, and ballot papers in protests since Bhutto’s assassination had led the commission to postpone elections for 40 days.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the ensuing violent chaos, and now this, a delay in the elections which Bhutto insisted would sweep her back to power.

Opposition parties say they see the hidden hand of government-linked forces behind all this, a government they say that is determined to cling to power, whatever the cost.

The election delay was immediately denounced by Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, whose supporters have accused President Musharraf’s government of complicity in her death. Officials insist the poll could have gone ahead.

ENVER BAIG, Official, Pakistan People’s Party: I feel the election commission on a pretext of this assassination wants to delay the elections to give breathing space to the Muslim League Q, which is the party of General Musharraf, because they know it, that in case elections are held on the 8th, they will be wiped out from the scene.

INIGO GILMORE: Tonight, President Musharraf, in an address to the nation, defended the decision to delay the poll and, referring to what he called “conspiracies,” insisted that Benazir Bhutto’s death was linked to Islamic extremists.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, President of Pakistan (through translator): Benazir Bhutto’s mission was to promote democracy and to struggle against terrorism. I share that mission.

INIGO GILMORE: President Musharraf’s government has resisted calls for an international inquiry into her death, but pressure has been growing after footage first shown by Channel 4 News appeared to show an assassin shooting Bhutto, contradicting government claims that she was not shot, but died after fracturing her skull.

President Musharraf, referring tonight to television news clips, made a surprise announcement.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF (through translator): We’ve requested a Scotland Yard team be sent to Pakistan, and I’m thankful to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The team will soon come to here to help us with our investigation and to overcome any defects in our probe.

INIGO GILMORE: President Musharraf’s critics say they’ll only be satisfied once they’ve rid Pakistan of military rule and all that goes with it.

Musharraf, Pakistan both need time

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on these latest developments in Pakistan's turbulent politics, we're joined by Trudy Rubin, a foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She was in Pakistan last week when Bhutto was killed.

And Shuja Nawaz, a former Pakistani journalist and international development agency official, he's the author of a forthcoming book on the Pakistani military.

Welcome to you both. Thank you for being here.

Mr. Nawaz, let's begin with Musharraf and his election commission's decide to postpone the elections. Now, why would they do this when the reaction from the opposition and all the suspicion about motives was so clearly predictable?

SHUJA NAWAZ, Pakistani Journalist: Well, I think, first, some ground realities. There were election commission offices attacked and damaged in Sindh. The security situation is still very uncertain. And if the elections had been held on January the 8th, the possibility of violence was there, much more so than normal. So that was one.

The other is that I think the ruling party, or the former ruling party that supported President Musharraf, is obviously rattled. And it was rattled by the fact that Ms. Bhutto's party and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party seemed to be forming some kind of an alliance in the elections.

And they want to ensure that whatever arrangements they can make to make sure that they can get a majority in the elections are undisturbed. And, therefore, they need this time to make sure that the elections go the way that they want them to go.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean to forestall the possibility of a sympathy vote or what they feared would be a huge sympathy vote for Bhutto's party?

SHUJA NAWAZ: Yes, although I believe that the sympathy vote is not going to be that critical, because there are vote banks which are tied to each party.

MARGARET WARNER: Trudy Rubin, just explain for our viewers here -- and you're just back from there -- that though Musharraf himself was not on the ballot, his own future is very much on the line in these elections.

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: Yes. His future is on the line, because what he and his party are afraid of is, if there is a possibility of the opposition getting a two-thirds majority, they could erase amendments to the constitution that Musharraf has made which exempt him from prosecution in the courts for things that he has done, like packing the supreme court, like running again for president in uniform, and then, after taking off his uniform, not waiting for two years.

So the real key is that no sympathy vote should sweep in a combined opposition with that magic two-thirds number that could basically oust him from office.

Investigation faces many obstacles

MARGARET WARNER: Then the other big move today, of course, was calling in Scotland Yard. What difference is that going to make, from people you talk to there, Shuja Nawaz? What difference will that make in the investigation now, a week after the event?

SHUJA NAWAZ: Well, history, as well as the situation on the ground, indicates that it's not going to make a huge difference. In Pakistan, the very first prime minister was assassinated, ironically in the same location where Prime Minister Bhutto was killed.

And Scotland Yard was brought in, in 1951. And they couldn't solve the problem, because the evidence was destroyed in a plane crash, along with all the documents and the chief investigative officer.

Similarly, Pakistan has brought in U.S. experts after the death of President Zia, and that did not identify who did it and how it happened. And that matter was not pursued by the government of Pakistan or the army.

We've had numerous other occasions, including Prime Minister Bhutto's own brother's death, where the investigation didn't produce anything. I do not think people in Pakistan are expecting that Scotland Yard can come in, specifically after the forensic evidence has been washed away.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Trudy Rubin, from people you're talking to there, what expectations do you think people have about this making a difference?

TRUDY RUBIN: I don't think that they see it making a large difference. After all, the evidence was literally washed away. Right after Ms. Bhutto's assassination, the police hosed down the crime scene. There was no autopsy done.

And I think that there's the expectation that Scotland Yard really will not be given full access. And there's also a worry that witnesses will not be protected.

After all, the doctors that first examined her when she was brought into the hospital said initially that she was shot, and then changed their story, and they have indicated that they were under pressure. So under these circumstances, the opposition parties are asking, what really will Scotland Yard be able to do?

MARGARET WARNER: And, Trudy, is the family more likely to allow an autopsy now? They had said one reason they didn't was they had no trust in the government's investigation.

TRUDY RUBIN: The family is still considering this. The police should have requested the autopsy initially. According to Pakistani law, if there is a criminal homicide, then the police are required to have an autopsy, unless the family requests them not to.

And yet, when the doctors expected an autopsy, the police did not request it. And then, in the chaos and the emotions of the situation, the family did not have one done.

Now it becomes a religious issue, whether to exhume the body. And it's still unclear. The family is considering the issue.

Elections likely stable but rigged

MARGARET WARNER: So, Shuja Nawaz, what should we expect to unfold in the next six weeks, in terms of whether today's events mark kind of a tamping down of this latest period of political instability as we move to these elections, or do you think that, in fact, it's just going to be another milestone on the road to more instability?

SHUJA NAWAZ: I think there will probably be much more instability. The fact that the president announced today that the army will be out in force means that it will probably be a peaceful election. The violence that is normally possible in such a situation may not be there.

However, I've heard from senior government officials, including a very senior person in the Punjab government, who said to me by e-mail that the officials of the government have been working on their time and using their resources to put up banners in support of the former chief minister of the Punjab, who may be a contender for the prime ministership should the PML-Q win again.

So a lot of the rigging, a lot of the support is already in place. The judiciary, which controls the election officers, has already been replaced, and so the election officers will be there.

The most rigging takes place not during the polling, but after the polling officially stops, because ballots are stuffed between the point where the polling station ends and where they are counted.

So there are many techniques which are employed, not just by this government, but by previous governments, too. And people know that that's where the vote can be affected.

Opposition seeks foreign pressure

MARGARET WARNER: And, Trudy, from talking to people in the opposition, how do they think this is likely to unfold? And what choices are they going to make about, for instance, demonstrations?

TRUDY RUBIN: The opposition is absolutely sure that there is going to be rigging taking place. And so far, they have been reluctant to encourage demonstrations.

But I've talked to people in the opposition who said they expect more violence before the polling. There is a religious holiday practiced by Shiite Muslims coming up, during which there is often sectarian violence. And opposition people are worried that there might be more violence instigated -- perhaps, they think, by government forces -- in order to postpone the elections further.

They've made a commitment to go forward, but what they are saying is that they don't trust the current election commissions. They don't trust the current interim government. They would like them replaced; I think the chances of that are small.

But they are hoping that Western governments will pressure for international election observers to have full access to the polls. Before the assassination, President Musharraf was going to limit access of international election observers. They were not going to be able to do exit polling.

And I think the opposition is hoping that now, in these circumstances, there will be more and more intense international scrutiny of the election.

MARGARET WARNER: And, meanwhile, Washington watches very nervously.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Yes. And they have good reason to be nervous, because President Musharraf seems rattled, and the security situation has become much worse.

MARGARET WARNER: Shuja Nawaz, Trudy Rubin, thank you both for being here.