TOPICS > Politics

Pakistani Presidential Election Awaits Court Ruling

October 8, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: More political uncertainty and confusion in the South Asian nation of Pakistan. Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, won a third term this weekend with 98 percent of the parliamentary vote, but some 40 percent of the eligible electors boycotted.

PAKISTANI CITIZEN: This seems to be the most controversial election in the history of Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: And the results won’t be official until the Supreme Court decides whether he was eligible to run at all. Musharraf’s opponents asked the court to declare it unconstitutional for him to be re-elected while still serving as army chief.

Hundreds of lawyers demonstrated across the country this weekend to protest the election. Musharraf has pledged to voluntarily vacate his army post by November 15th, the day his current term expires. He spoke to reporters on Saturday night.

JOURNALIST: If the Supreme Court rules against you after 17th of October, will you step down?

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, President of Pakistan: Well, let’s come to the decision, and then we’ll decide. Let them come to their decision first.

MARGARET WARNER: Just before the election, Musharraf granted amnesty on pending corruption charges to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, clearing the way for her to return from exile to lead her Pakistan People’s Party in new parliamentary elections due before January 15th.

Today, Musharraf, who’s been the object of several assassination attempts, had another brush with fate. As his entourage flew to Kashmir, one of his escort helicopters crashed, killing four. But an army spokesman ruled out foul play, blaming the crash on technical problems.

And for more, we turn to Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think-thank in Washington. He’s also a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine. He reported from South Asia for the Washington Post in the early 1990s.

And, Steve, welcome back.

STEVE COLL, Staff Writer, The New Yorker: Good to see you, Margaret.

The impact of Musharraf's victory

MARGARET WARNER: So after this summer of drama, Pervez Musharraf gets himself re-elected still in his army uniform. How significant an event is this?

STEVE COLL: I think it's quite significant, because it lights a path to the possibility of at least a partial democratic transition over the next couple of months.

About a month ago, it was uncertain whether the negotiations that had taken place during the summer between President Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto would yield such a transition. Now his re-election, assuming it's ratified by the Supreme Court, suggests that transition is underway.

MARGARET WARNER: But if all the opposition members, or virtually all of them, boycotted this, and it was in the parliament, how reflective would you say this re-election is of the will of the Pakistani people?

STEVE COLL: Not very at all, and it wasn't even a direct election, of course. It was an indirect election through a franchise of assembly members.

But the question now is whether those parties that boycotted this particular event will return to the field to participate in the truly national elections that seem to be ahead. Those are popular elections, where there's at least the promise of pretty vigorous competition.

MARGARET WARNER: The legislative ones?

STEVE COLL: Legislative and provincial, national and provincial.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Supreme Court, as we said, it's holding back on certifying this election. How likely is it that they would nullify it at this point?

STEVE COLL: Well, it seems unlikely that they would nullify it entirely, but if they do -- and, of course, they've proven to be quite an independent body over the course of this year, and they might generate another surprise -- but even if they reject this outcome, they're likely to set a course that would encourage or permit Musharraf to retain the presidency until the national elections are completed, and then, perhaps, be re-elected by the new assembly.

So this would muddy the waters that are already muddy enough. But it wouldn't necessarily create a dramatic event in this transition that now seems well underway.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Musharraf has promised to take off this uniform before he takes on his new term, but he has made similar promises before and not kept them. What reason is there to think he will keep this promise?

STEVE COLL: Well, he started to put a transition in place in the army leadership; that's the most important evidence. He's promoted two significant allies within the senior ranks of the Pakistan army, one to succeed him as chief of army stuff, another to run the country's very powerful intelligence service.

So he's setting the stage. Will he follow through? I think he's still waiting for the Supreme Court to send a signal as to whether or not this election, that he believes is completed, is, in fact, legitimate.

MARGARET WARNER: And so play that out. How would that affect his decision to take off the uniform?

STEVE COLL: I think, if the Supreme Court says this election isn't legitimate, you have to wait for the next assembly, it might slow down the pace at which takes off the uniform. He might postpone this decision. He certainly, I think, would feel that he had been absolved of his promises if the Supreme Court overturned the election.

Sharing power with Benazir Bhutto

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the deal with Benazir Bhutto, another topic of much discussion and speculation throughout the summer. What's in that, other than that she can return and run, at least, or lead her party in the parliamentary elections without being arrested on corruption charges?

STEVE COLL: Well, not much in constitutional terms, but quite a lot in political terms. I think there are still a number of power-sharing issues that are unresolved or, if they have been resolved, they haven't been made explicit for the Pakistani public.

But what has been agreed is a path that allows her to come back and compete in national elections for the first time since the mid-1990s. It restores the leadership of the largest single party in Pakistan, a liberal party that has much overlapping outlook with President Musharraf.

It creates a path for her to try to leverage the United States government, the governments of the European Union and others, to try to finish this constitutional reform, because, really, the big question is, even if there is a democratic election that succeeds in the winter, will the arrangements that emerge be stable? Will they create space for a modernizing Pakistan? And I think, until these reforms are completed, there's a big question about that.

MARGARET WARNER: And by reforms, you're speaking of the relationship essentially between the president and the parliament?

STEVE COLL: Precisely, and the instability in that relationship in the past has been the source of quite a lot of the failure of democratic government in the past. Of course, the governments have also governed poorly, and the army has interfered in civilian affairs. There are many sources of complication.

But in constitutional terms, having a consensus about the powers of the three most important people in Pakistan -- the army chief, the president and the prime minister -- that consensus is still elusive.

Giving up martial rule

MARGARET WARNER: But what does it say to you that Bhutto in this deal wasn't able to get one of the things that she was insisting on, which was that the president give up this power he had taken onto himself to, say, dissolve the parliament? That's a pretty fundamental issue, if you're talking about the relative powers of the two.

STEVE COLL: It may have been a bridge too far. I mean, Musharraf, after all, was giving up his army uniform, the source of his greatest power as a political figure in Pakistan. To at the same time give up his authority over the civilian prime minister would essentially render the office of the president ceremonial.

And the Pakistani model in the past has been a little closer to the French model, where you have a semi-powerful president and a powerful prime minister that may not even be from the same political grouping, but they interact with each other. And I think that's Musharraf's vision of his own role. Benazir Bhutto has a different idea.

MARGARET WARNER: And, of course, Benazir Bhutto's own future is still in doubt, is it not? I mean, there's no -- she also didn't get the promise that she, in fact, could run for a third term at the same time.

STEVE COLL: That's true. It hasn't been made explicit. The sense you get is that there is a tacit agreement that she would ultimately be permitted to take that office if her party was in a position to lead a coalition or somehow won an absolute majority, which seems less likely. But, certainly, such permission has not been formally granted, so far as I'm aware.

MARGARET WARNER: So bottom line, do you think it's fair to say now or is it too early to say that, if this election stands, that Musharraf nonetheless as a president will rule with less authority after mid-November than he has up until now?

STEVE COLL: No question about it, assuming he gives up his post of chief of army staff. That has always been a more powerful position in Pakistan's national life than the presidency.

He is presumably handing the baton to generals who feel loyal to him and whom he trusts, but the history of that office in Pakistan suggests that, once you have the top position, your outlook about your mentors and about even ideology and foreign policy may change. So what happens inside the army once Musharraf steps aside to me is the greatest question hanging over the next six to 12 months.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Coll, thank you so much.

STEVE COLL: Margaret, my pleasure.