Leading article: Phoney democratic overtures

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President Pervez Musharraf held his first news conference yesterday since declaring a state of emergency in Pakistan a week ago. The President claimed that new parliamentary elections will be held in early January and that they will be contested freely. But if the President imagines this will restore his democratic credentials he is very much mistaken.

The mask fell last week. The detention of opposition political leaders, Supreme Court judges, activists and lawyers have exposed the true nature of President Musharraf's regime. These are not the actions of a leader concerned with securing the country in the face of an overwhelming threat. These are the actions of man concerned with saving his own political skin. The President had got wind of the fact that the Supreme Court was planning to strike down his re-election as President on constitutional grounds. President Musharraf would not allow this, hence the state of emergency.

And what are the chances that January's elections will be free and fair? Can we be confident that all imprisoned activists will be released by the time the poll comes round? And even if they are, how free will opposition parties be to campaign if there remains a state of emergency in the country? The suspicion has to be that President Musharraf wants these elections to be conducted at gunpoint.

Moreover, the issue which sparked the crisis remains unresolved. President Musharraf has given no date as to when he will step down as the army's chief of staff. He evidently intends to hold on to both his uniform and his political office for the foreseeable future.

The most significant question is whether President Musharraf's western allies will live up to their democratic rhetoric and condemn what is taking place in Pakistan, or whether they will turn a blind eye for the sake of convenience and perceived strategic advantage? We must hope that it is the former, but the response of Washington and our own government to developments yesterday suggests they are preparing to go along with President Musharraf's phoney democratic overtures.

President Musharraf has had ample time to reinvigorate Pakistani democracy since taking power in 1999. He has received some $10bn in US aid since he sided with the West against the Taliban in 2001. Yet he has failed to capitalise on the opportunity. That does not merely reflect the undoubted difficulties of nurturing a plural political system in such an unstable and fragmentary country. It also indicates that President Musharraf is unwilling to do so. The time has come for the West to stop indulging Pakistan's flailing leader and to throw its weight behind a genuine democrat.