Friday, April 13, 2007

Amir Taheri on Politics, Pakistani Style

Amir Taheri weighs in on the choice immediately facing Pakistani President Musharraf - whether to rely on Islamist parties for support or to allow secular democratic opposition to rebuild:

AS NATO forces prepare to face a massive "spring offensive" by the Taliban in Afghanistan, policymakers may be ignoring a greater threat looming in Pakistan.

. . . But, while Afghanistan is vaccinated against Talibanization, Pakistan is not.

Islamist parties sympathetic to the Taliban already control the regional government in the Northwest Frontier, one of Pakistan's four provinces, and have a foothold in the administration of another, Balochistan. Of greater concern, however, is the heightened profile of Taliban-style groups in Punjab and Sind, two provinces that account for 80 percent of the country's population.

Two factors explain the rise of Taliban-style groups in Pakistan.

The first is President Pervez Musharraf's semi-official alliance with Islamist parties that, though not as radical as the Taliban, have worked hard to increase the role of religion in the nation's politics. By imposing religion as a measure of all things, they have enabled hard-line elements to pose as the sole true custodians of Islam.

The second factor is Musharraf's refusal to allow Pakistan's moderate parties to rebuild themselves under leaders of their choice. These parties were severely restricted, and their top leaders chased out of the country, when Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

The elimination of the mainstream parties led to a paradoxical situation - in which a general who takes the secular Turkish republic as his model found himself allied to Islamists of various shades.

. . . Yet the Musharraf presidency is fast approaching a fork in the road. In one direction lies the path to tighter military rule backed by obscurantist religious parties ready to sacrifice political and social freedoms at the altar of a narrow vision of Islam. The other direction points to a genuine democratization that could immunize Pakistan against all forms of Talibanization.

The moment of choice will come later this year, when Pakistan is to hold a general election.

The question is whether Musharraf will allow the mainstream, non-Islamist parties to reorganize freely and enter the election with leaders of their own choice.

In recent weeks, several countries (including the United Sates, Britain and Saudi Arabia) have worked behind the scenes to broker a deal between Musharraf and party leaders in exile.

If my sources are right, an agreement is in the making between Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

As leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Bhutto is arguably the strongest democratic figure in her nation's politics. Last week's decision by a court to throw out trumped-up charges of corruption against her could facilitate her return from exile. And that is certain to boost the chances of mainstream forces defeating the Islamists in a straight electoral contest. . . .

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