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Published: Tuesday, 5/7/2002

It wasn't democratic, but hey

Pakistanis voted last week to extend the mandate of the current president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, by another five years. But any resemblance to democracy as we know it was purely accidental.

He reportedly won the vote by a percentage in the high 90s and voter turnout was estimated at about 30 percent - both figures disputed by the Pakistan Human Rights Commission and other civilian opponents of President Musharraf and military rule.

Since the election was a simple yes-or-no vote, the issues were for the large part implicit and not discussed. But they were there - for the Pakistanis, and for the United States. When Mr. Musharraf took power in 1999 he promised free elections in 2002, a pledge he obviously off-loaded in permitting no alternative candidates for the presidency and asking for five more years by referendum. He has scheduled legislative elections for October of this year.

The implicit question was thus whether the Pakistanis were content to continue life for another five years with the stability provided by an unelected military dictator, as opposed to returning once again to the generally chaotic political situation that tends to prevail in Pakistan when political parties and candidates compete freely.

The second implicit question was how Pakistanis in general feel about Mr. Musharraf's cooperation with the United States in hunting down al-Qaeda and putting the Taliban out of business in Afghanistan. Pakistan has its own passel of Islamic extremists, who may even still be harboring Osama bin Laden somewhere in Pakistan. These people certainly do not favor Mr. Musharraf's generally pro-American policies and would like to see him go, dead or alive - which also points up the risks he undertook in campaigning across the country.

The third question - also related to Pakistan's renewed alliance with the United States - is the economic impact of Mr. Musharraf's continued rule on the standard of living in that country of 145 million. Pakistan is in the process of receiving up to $1 billion in increased American aid, based on the cooperation that its government under Gen. Musharraf has provided to the United States in the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism.

For the United States, the general view seems to be: Continue for now to look the other way on the state of democracy in Pakistan, given its checkered history, given President Musharraf's help to America since Sept. 11, and given the continuing high value of a relatively stable, large ally in that part of the world in these troubled times.

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