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HindustanTimes Wed,22 Oct 2014
Tripping on its own feet
First Published: 00:24 IST(4/5/2013)
Last Updated: 00:27 IST(4/5/2013)

A United States State Department spokesperson recently remarked that her country has "no favourites" in the Pakistan elections that are due in exactly a week. That's hardly startling - as the US starts pulling up stakes from the Af-Pak region, they will have little at stake in who governs from Islamabad.

America is keeping its diplomatic distance from these elections through acts such as Secretary of State John Kerry bypassing that nation despite a recent stopover in Kabul. Not all of America's emissaries have been as standoffish, since a couple of drone-delivered missiles continued the campaign in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas with a brace of strikes in mid-April. But even these remote-controlled Predators have increasingly focused westward, upon Yemen.

Former US Ambassador to Islamabad Ryan Crocker recently described Pakistan as "a failing state". Some of those failings have become apparent in the manner in which the elections are being conducted.

Take for instance, the quizzing of candidates by the State's moral arbiters before being allowed to contest. Among the questions posed were: In which situation does a bath become mandatory for married men? Have they ever stood before a girls' college?

With the Obama administration concentrating on its schedule for departure from Afghanistan in 2014, possibly along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his retinue and sackfuls of hand-delivered cash, few questions are being asked about the direction in which Pakistan's fragile democracy is headed.

The current Pakistan People's Party regime is bound to suffer a major setback with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's iteration of the Pakistan Muslim League -(Nawaz) in pole position, trailed by Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf. Former President Pervez Musharraf has been barred for life from contesting elections.

Khan's party in its manifesto positions its promises for minorities right next to those for people with disabilities. Similarly, less than 44% of the approximately 86 registered million voters are women.

Even if the US isn't paying too much attention, others are. The Pakistan Taliban, for instance, as its leader Hakimullah Mehsud said that terrorist group was 'focused' on the election to "end the democratic system". With over 60 people killed, that focus is on Pakistan's version of 'secular' parties resulting even in PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto having to campaign via video. Meanwhile, the Difa-e-Pakistan, with its votaries like Lashkar-e-Taiba lowlife Hafiz Saeed, is openly engaged in the process.

Fortunately, Pakistan's mighty military has declared it won't interfere in the electoral process. Which led the risk assessment firm Eurasia Group's Shamila Chaudhry to comment: "Observers take note - when the Pakistani military plans to take over, it will let you know."

In fact, Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani has stated there's "no reason to fear dictatorship" if Pakistanis "vote solely on the basis of honesty, sincerity, merit and competence". Considering just how likely that is, it's worth wondering if Kayani, whose own term expires this year, is eyeing another retirement benefit that Pakistan's generals have become accustomed to, like pensions - the coup.

Again, those are not necessarily questions being asked in Washington, even if America's deep pockets have proffered over $25 billion to Pakistan's deep state since 9/11.

A recent AP report outlined the questioning of a candidate from Karachi to ascertain his suitability for political office. That person was asked to name the first person to step on the moon. He obliged with the correct answer, Neil Armstrong. The supplementary query was trickier: Who next stepped upon the moon? The candidacy was approved with this clincher: Neil Armstrong, since "he was not disabled and had use of both of his legs."

The completion of a full term by the PPP government, the first ever for a civilian regime, was a fairly significant step. The US, and India certainly, will be over the moon if there's another step forward in that direction. But there's always the reality that Pakistan's military is going to trip up the civilian dispensation.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years

The views expressed by the author are personal


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