WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to persuade Pakistan to free democratic activists and lawyers, lift press restrictions and allow international observers into polling stations to ensure that the delayed parliamentary election is deemed credible by Pakistanis and by the international community, according to U.S. officials.
In their first conversation since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called President Pervez Musharraf on New Year’s Day to discuss the importance of the election next month as a means of restoring stability in a nuclear-armed country that is also on the front line of fighting extremism.
Other U.S. officials and diplomats in Islamabad are engaged in an intense diplomatic push this week, officials said.
“What the Pakistani government and Pakistani officials need to do now is to make the best use of that time between now and February 18 … to make sure that independent media is able to operate, to make sure that those who want to peacefully participate in the political process can do so, that any restrictions on political parties are lifted,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday.
U.S. officials say they are trying to capitalize on the shock of Bhutto’s assassination last Thursday and the growing threat of instability to pressure Musharraf to take steps he has resisted for months.
The new U.S. push comes amid growing calls for Musharraf to step aside because an election will no longer be enough to stabilize Pakistan.
A report by the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan international monitoring group, warned Wednesday that Pakistan’s moderate majority is unlikely to settle for anything less than genuine parliamentary democracy without the controversial former general.
“Stability in Pakistan and its contribution to wider anti-terror efforts now require rapid transition to legitimate civilian government,” the ICG concluded. “This must involve the departure of Musharraf, whose continued efforts to retain power at all costs are incompatible with national reconciliation.”
Musharraf has placed his political future and the regime’s survival ahead of all other Pakistani interests, the report warns, thus generating a showdown with the moderate center that could threaten the federation’s ability to hold together.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the next six weeks are critical in determining whether Pakistanis can move beyond the loss of the leader of the largest opposition movement.
Washington is also pushing Islamabad to reform the election commission so it is no longer seen as a Musharraf prop and to allow exit polling as a way to help verify voting trends with the government count, U.S. officials said.