One minute he was being hailed as a friend in the fight against terrorism, a defender of democracy; the next, he was being attacked as a dictator who could tear a nation apart. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf was in London today, reassuring British Prime Minster Gordon Brown that his home country's parliamentary elections next month would be free and fair. But at a press conference an hour later, Imran Khan, ex-cricket legend and head of opposition party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, warned that if Musharraf's party wins the majority on February 18, the world will witness protests that make the recent riots in Kenya "look like child's play."
Just before the meeting at Downing Street, a group of gunmen took around 250 schoolchildren hostage in Pakistan's north-west Bannu district. Then, as Brown and Musharraf discussed how the president was going to crack down on extremism in Pakistan, the gunman who, according to Musharraf, only ran into the school to escape from police freed the children and turned themselves in to the tribal elders who were acting as negotiators. Brown might have seen the peaceful outcome as either an omen or perhaps real-world proof that Musharraf is, in the words of the prime minister, "a key ally in combating terrorism and extremism."
But for Khan, it was just another example of how extremism has grown in Pakistan since Musharraf came to power via military coup in 1999. "Last year was the bloodiest year ever in Pakistan," he said. Even the tribal areas, which Bannu is near, are "threatening to stand up against the military," Khan said, as "not religious, but political Talibanization" spreads across the country. Speaking over the constant clicking of cameras, Khan chastised the U.S. and Britain for only paying lip service to democracy in Pakistan and painted a picture of a country on the brink of implosion, caught in a vicious cycle where the fight against terrorism only ends up creating more terrorists. "People in Pakistan are actually worried about the existence of Pakistan," he declared.
London is the latest stop in Musharraf's European tour, which also included a meeting with E.U. Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana in Brussels and a visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland a goal of this trip has been to allay any concerns that heads of state in the West might have about the upcoming election. Brown, for one, seems convinced. After the meeting, the prime minister confirmed he told Musharraf that "credible elections ... are essential" for Pakistan and that the president assured him "that all electoral processes are in place to ensure transparent, credible polling. ... The priority now for the international community and the government of Pakistan must be to ensure that the democratic process remains on track."
For Khan though, words are not enough he wants Britain to walk the walk and help make some changes to the current regime. With Musharraf in charge of fairness at the polls, "it will be the rigging of all times," he said. Instead, Khan along with the leaders of dozens of other Pakistani political parties and, according to polls, the majority of the country's citizens wants to see the reinstatement of the more than 60 Supreme Court judges that Musharraf fired in November 2007, when they opposed his candidacy for president. When asked what he wants from Brown, Khan dismissed "all this nonsense" about outside moderators for the upcoming elections and said he wants only one thing from the prime minister: "He should demand the reinstatement of the judges. They will ensure freedom of the media, they will protect the electoral commission, they will ensure free and fair elections."
Khan had several predictions for what would happen if the elections are carried out without an independent judiciary back in place and all of them ended in chaos. "We will see bloodshed and bombs," he concluded. Musharraf is promising Europe's leaders that February 18 will be a turning point for Pakistan. But others fear it could be the last straw.