Under Western Pressure, Pakistan Edging Toward Elections

By Suryamurthy Ramachandran | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - Pakistan military ruler General Pervez Musharraf's decision to exile the man he deposed, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to Saudi Arabia is part of his plan to restore democracy in the troubled south Asian nation, analysts said Tuesday.

"With the economy in bad shape and pressure from U.S. and other nations mounting, Musharraf has no other option but to hold an election to restore democracy," said an Islamabad-based political observer, Abdul Rashid.

"The military ruler, in a systematic and planned manner, wants to remove all credible opposition to the rule of the army before he hands over power to a democratically-elected government," he explained.

Musharraf can legally call an election before October 2002, according to a ruling by the country's Supreme Court when it upheld the legality of the October 1999 coup.

Sharif was convicted of hijacking and terrorism and sentenced to life imprisonment. The charges related to the day of the coup, when government officials prevented a civilian airliner carrying Musharraf, chief of the army at the time, from landing.

Sharif's departure on Sunday to Saudi Arabia means that the leaders of all three major political parties are now in exile. Both former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement, Altaf Hussain, are in London.

Apart from economic realities and diplomatic pressures from the West, another reason Musharraf hastily packed Sharif off into exile was his concern about the recent formation of a political alliance between Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, and another minor party.

"The alliance, at present, was not a strong political force to reckon with," commented another Pakistani analyst, Imran Shah.

"However, it had the potential of creating trouble for the military ruler in the near future when the people's disillusionment with the military rule sets in," he added.

"Musharraf, with his foresight, has clinched a deal of sparing the life of Sharif and allowing him exile. He will hold elections which would appear to be free and fair, but will be [a] farce," said Shah.

A Lahore-based political observer, Salma Alvi, said even though Sharif was in prison, his presence remained a problem and a constraint for the military government.

"This constraint having now been removed, the military should feel more at ease and better placed to open up the clogged channels of democracy," Alvi said.

Meanwhile Pakistan's main fundamentalist religious party, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), has attacked Musharraf for going soft on Sharif.

In another sign of disillusionment with military rule, JI also called for an end to Musharraf's anti-corruption body, known as the National Accountability Bureau.

Under draconian laws introduced by the military government, the NAB can detain people on suspicion of corruption for up to three months without charge. Dozens of people, from junior bureaucrats to former ministers and provincial governors, have been rounded up.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch last week accused the regime of torturing opposition politicians.

The government, however, said it "firmly believes in the rule of law and only corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who played havoc with national wealth are being targeted and brought to justice."

The government has confiscated five million dollars, several industrial and residential facilities and 24 hectares of agricultural land belonging to the Sharif family.

A government statement reiterated that Sharif would be disqualified from public office for 21 years.