No poll this year is likely to be watched with as much apprehension as tomorrow's general elections in Pakistan. Despite serious reservations about the credibility of the process, many believe that they may yet serve as the magic wand to overcome Pakistan's crisis of governance. Will they?
Pakistan has been convulsed by catastrophic events over the last four months that have transformed these elections from a carefully stage-managed show for the benefit of President Musharraf to an ominous-looking referendum on his performance, which threatens his political survival. In less than a year, the man once touted as indispensable to the country's stability now stands exposed as possibly the greatest obstacle to that end.
At the heart of this astonishing transformation lies a colossal erosion of trust between Musharraf and the Pakistani people. It was brought rudely to the surface within hours of Benazir Bhutto's assassination last December. National grief turned to bitter anger against Musharraf, who stood accused of complicity in her murder. Since then, every effort by his officials to inspire public confidence has been met with open disbelief, as was most recently demonstrated by scepticism over the Scotland Yard report on her killing.
However, this breakdown in public trust long predated Bhutto's death. Musharraf's controversial dismissal of the country's Chief Justice last March, his questionable re-election as President while still holding the post of army chief in clear violation of the constitution, and his ill-advised decision to impose emergency rule, lost him the support he once enjoyed among the liberal-minded classes, who had looked to him to protect the country's institutions. But it was his assault on the Red Mosque in July last year that represented a turning point in Musharraf's political fortunes. It constituted the ultimate breach of a contract between him and his allies on the religious right, who viewed him and his military-dominated regime as the ultimate guarantors of their interests in the face of mounting pressure to tackle Islamic extremism.
The damage caused by this loss of public confidence could have been partially contained had Musharraf chosen to heal divisions by working towards genuinely free and fair elections. That would have involved a neutral caretaker government, an impartial Election Commission and a district administration free of bias. In their absence, many now fear that the climate of mistrust will translate into a climate of generalised violence after the polls. This would incite Islamic militant groups to renew their campaign and could draw Musharraf into a deadly power struggle with opposition forces determined to oust him.
The Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, have both warned of mass unrest if the election results fail to meet their expectations. What these expectations are is difficult to judge in the context of Pakistan's distorted electoral market. But it is fair to assume that anything less than a parliamentary majority reducing Musharraf to a political irrelevance will be unacceptable to the opposition. At the same time, it is fair to assume the commando in Musharraf is unlikely to go down without a fight.
The deciding factor, as always in Pakistan, will be the army. Its new chief, General Kiyani, has made clear that the interests of his institution are now distinct from Musharraf's own political ambitions. Much will hinge on whether or not Kiyani is willing to put that to the test by distancing himself from Musharraf. If so, he will be continuing a long and fundamentally undisturbed tradition that sets the army, rather than the electorate, as the ultimate kingmaker in Pakistan.
Farzana Shaikh is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House. Her book 'Making Sense of Pakistan' (Hurst) will be published this year