As a spectacle of democracy in action, it was stillborn even before it began. Called one by one in alphabetical order yesterday, Pakistan's parliamentarians walked to a screened-off booth, where they marked their ballot papers and then dropped them into a large plastic bin. As General Pervez Musharraf was elected by an overwhelming majority to serve another five years as President, the intended message could not have been clearer: this process is fair, free and transparent. In reality, it was none of these things.
The voting process began at 10am on a hot, breezeless day and concluded five hours later. Shortly after the ballots closed at the National Assembly building in Islamabad and four regional assemblies across the country, it was announced that General Musharraf had secured an overwhelming victory. The Election Commission announced he had won 252 of the 257 votes cast in parliament, and he was poised to win by a similar landslide in all four of the regional assemblies. Inside the National Assembly the general's supporters cheered and waved, as though they had feared the outcome might have been in doubt.
In fact, it was never in question. Ever since the country's Supreme Court nine days ago cleared the way for General Musharraf to run for the presidency while remaining head of the armed forces, it was clear there would be only one winner. Neither the resignation last week of 86 opposition members in protest nor the boycott of the vote yesterday by members of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto was going to change that.
Nor were the military leader's supporters going to be distracted by the Supreme Court, which in an 11th-hour decision allowed the election to proceed, but declared that the result could not be officially validated until it had ruled on yet another legal challenge to General Musharraf's candidacy. "This result shows the people want continuity of policy," said the Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz. "It's a very good omen that the election was fair and transparent."
An alien from another universe might have been impressed yesterday by the appearance of democracy, and the claim that the vote marked a move towards a more representative system. But in Washington and London it will have been seen as a necessary charade to safeguard General Musharraf's presidency and retain him as an ally in the "war on terror".
The day after the al-Qa'ida attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, General Musharraf was bluntly told by Washington that he had the choice of being "100 per cent with us or 100 per cent against us". The general's domestically difficult decision to ally himself with President George Bush, first against the Taliban and then in a broader effort against extremism, has seen him rewarded in many ways. Observers believe Pakistan has received at least $10bn (£4.8bn) from the US since that date, and maybe twice as much. Crucially, Washington has also provided him with political backing.
The main priorities for the US in Pakistan have been to ensure stability inside the nuclear-armed state and to push General Musharraf into confronting extremists and terrorists inside his country. It has apparently had few qualms over what tactics he has used: campaigners say hundreds of people have "disappeared" into the country's jails in recent years.
"Pakistan's human rights situation is dismal and has grown steadily worse under Musharraf," said Ali Hasan of Human Rights Watch. "While it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of disappearance cases, there are hundreds of such cases on the record. While the US and UK have been complicit in the disappearances of alleged al-Qa'ida suspects, the Pakistani government has taken full advantage of Western complicity in such acts to extend their scope to domestic political opponents and critics."
On Friday evening a group of women was sitting outside the Supreme Court, alongside photographs of dozens of "disappeared" young men. One after another the women said their sons had been detained for no reason other than "having a beard" or "going to the mosque". Most had heard no word, not even confirmation that their children were still alive. "I cannot tell you how I feel," said Zenab Khatoon, her eyes heavy with tears. "If you could open up my chest and see my heart ..."
Far from quelling the threat of extremism, such heavy-handed measures have simply multiplied the number of General Musharraf's enemies, while his US and British backers suspect that his efforts against terrorism are half-hearted. The most conspicuous example was what happened at the Red Mosque in Islamabad. After many months when the authorities did nothing to stop the mosque from becoming a hotbed of militants, soldiers and paramilitaries went in with all guns blazing, killing dozens. The affair stoked the hatred of extremists and disdain among more moderate elements at the way the situation had been allowed to get out of hand.
A similar combination of passivity and overreaction is seen in the government's dealings with the unruly tribal areas along Afghanistan's border. Although Britain never managed to suppress the Pashtun tribes when it was colonial master, and set up a system of semi-autonomy which Pakistan's rulers have continued, London and Washington doubt that he has put his full effort behind trying to find Osama bin Laden or rooting out al-Qa'ida, which has turned the tribal areas into the kind of safe haven it had enjoyed in Afghanistan.
While General Musharraf has veered between sending in the army and trying to cut deals with the tribal elders, the territories remain a key location for terror training camps. Confronted by rising hostility – and the fact that more than 200 Pakistani troops are still held hostage by militants – the latest twist is that Pakistan's military is now considering pulling back from some crucial areas.
General Musharraf's problems, however, are also the West's, because since 2001 the alternatives have seemed infinitely worse. It has suited his Western supporters to try to give Pakistan the veneer of a more democratic country. That opportunity presented itself in the form of the exiled former premier, Benazir Bhutto, long accused of corruption but still determined to regain political power and, most importantly, very good at selling herself in the West as a democratic balance to General Musharraf.
For the past two years the US and Britain have played a crucial role in brokering a power-sharing agreement between the military leader and Ms Bhutto's PPP and – they would argue – nudging Pakistan towards civilian rule. The efforts involved countless rounds of talks in Pakistan as well as in Dubai and London, where Ms Bhutto has homes. According to one senior source privy to the bargaining: "The British acted as facilitators, and brought us nearer to each other. Whenever we got stuck, they played a very constructive role in reviving the talks."
Central to the negotiations was Mark Lyall Grant, former British high commissioner in Islamabad and currently head of the political directorate at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. The Eton- and Cambridge-educated diplomat was a well-regarded figure in Islamabad, a reputation that was helped by his fluency in Urdu and his family's connection with Pakistan. The town of Faisalbad was originally named Lyallpur, after Sir Charles James Lyall, an ancestor of Mr Lyall Grant's. In recent months, Tom Drew, a political counsellor at the High Commission, also became involved, often shuttling back and forth between the various parties.
The outcome of the exhaustive negotiations was announced on Friday. General Musharraf signed into law an amnesty that opened the way for Ms Bhutto to return to Pakistan, avoid prosecution and – as seems very possible – to become Prime Minister once again following parliamentary elections next January.
What is certainly true is that yesterday's election did not represent the will of the general public. Most polls and political analysts believe the military leader, who first seized power in a coup in 1999, would lose a national vote. His support has been falling since the spring, when he ousted the chief justice of the Supreme Court in a plainly political move. In the aftermath of the Red Mosque assault, the country has also seen a wave of extremist terror attacks, raising further questions about his abilities.
The next couple of weeks will see a flurry of political activity in Pakistan. Next week Ms Bhutto is due to return to Pakistan to launch her party's campaign for January's parliamentary elections. The day before, the Supreme Court is due to resume hearing the legal challenge to General Musharraf's candidacy. At some point, the general has said he will stand down as head of the armed forces.
On paper, the court could yet rule that his candidacy was invalid and demand a new vote. But even if it does, it is impossible to see how it could be enforced. For all the Musharraf government's claims that it would abide by the court's decisions, all of its behaviour in the aftermath of yesterday's outcome – the celebrations, its talk of another five years – smacked of a regime loudly declaring victory. Not even an alien would bet against it.
Parliamentary poll: Bhutto to tour power base as support falters
Benazir Bhutto will fly back to Karachi next week to launch a bid for a historic third term as the country's Prime Minister, writes Omar Waraich in Islamabad. She will travel through the heartlands of her Pakistan People Party (PPP) in Sindh province to her father's tomb in Larkana.
Ms Bhutto inherited the leadership of the PPP from her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who formed Pakistan's first democratically elected government. He was toppled in a coup in 1977 and hanged two years later.
After years in prison and exile, she returned to Pakistan in 1986 as the heroine of the pro-democracy struggle. But her stock fell sharply over the next decades as her governments were ousted amid allegations of corruption.
Parliamentary elections are expected in January, and though the PPP stands a chance of emerging with the greatest number of seats, Ms Bhutto has lost support in recent months as news of her talks with the increasingly unpopular General Musharraf became public.