February 13, 2008 -- PAKISTAN next week may hold its first-ever reason ably free and fair general elections.
Initial attempts by elements in the military to exclude some parties have failed, as have efforts by some groups to mount a boycott front. These will be the most widely contested polls Pakistan has seen.
The only danger now is that President Pervez Musharraf's entourage may be tempted to fix the results to ensure its continued hold on power - perhaps in the normal Third World way of switching ballot boxes to produce a majority for one's friends.
Musharraf might find it hard to resist the temptation. Last year, he had to declare a state of emergency, purge the Supreme Court of unfriendly judges and bulldoze his way to re-re-election by a legislature filled with his supporters.
With a new legislature (the national parliament plus four provincial ones), he'd be obliged to resign and seek re-election. But, if not filled with friends, the new legislature might shop around for a new president.
After all, Pakistan's political elite, now likely to make a full comeback, never saw Musharraf as one of its own. Why should Musharraf take the gamble?
Nor would it be hard to pull off. The political elite is still too divided and confused about its strategy to put up much of a resistance. The military appears determined to stay out of politics, at least for now. The United States, under a lame-duck administration, would have to go along with whatever Musharraf does until after the November elections.
But, while the election might save Musharraf's presidency for a while, it could wreck Pakistan.
All four of the provinces that together form the Islamic Republic of Pakistan are showing breakaway trends.
* In Baluchistan (the largest in territory but smallest in population), the recent "targeted killing" of Akbar Bugti, a local tribal chief and veteran rebel, has triggered a blood feud that may not be forgotten soon. Some parts of the vast province are now no-go areas for the Pakistani army and bureaucracy.
The idea of an independent Greater Baluchistan (which would also include Iran's 2.2 million Baluch plus 1.2 million who live in Afghanistan) seems more popular than ever. Even some of the most reasonable and moderate Baluch figures now talk of secession.
* The neighboring province of Sindh is also witnessing the rise of secessionist groups. Using the assassination of former Premier Benazir Bhutto (who hailed from a feudal Sindhi family) as an excuse, these secessionists claim that their province has received a rough deal from the Pakistani state all along.
Karachi, a mammoth urban sprawl of some 20 million people, is the theater of a civil war within a civil war: Immigrant Muslim communities hailing from the rest of the Indian subcontinent are trying to affirm themselves against both the Sindhis and the Pakistani state in general.
* The Northwest Frontier province, where ethnic Pashtuns form a majority, has always been receptive to secessionism. In recent years, it has also become the focus of jihadi activities in Pakistan.
The Pashtun-jihadi alliance dreams of conquering Afghanistan's Pashtun parts to create a Greater Pashtunistan that would serve as a springboard for conquests in the name of Taliban-style Islam.
* That leaves Punjab, the province holding more than 60 percent of Pakistan's 170 million people. Pakistani Punjabis look across the border to the half of the historic Punjab that remained part of India and see democracy at work, with governments changing through elections rather than coups d'etat and insurgency. They see India enjoying economic growth rates topping 10 percent a year, while Pakistan barely manages half of that. India can see itself as a winner while Pakistan remains gripped by the fear of remaining a historic loser.
All this doesn't mean that Pakistan is doomed. I have always maintained that a sense of Pakistani-ness has taken shape over the last six decades; that, though an artificial state, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is loved by a majority of its citizens.
Pakistan has always needed a system where the public space reflects the nation's diversity. The label "Islamic Republic" can't hide the fact that it is home to a variety of Islamic "ways," not to mention some 22 million Christians and 6 million-plus Hindus.
Such a system can't work without free and fair elections. Where there are no elections or election results are fixed, the only way to express diversity and pursue different goals is civil war.
Musharraf isn't a typical military dictator, like his Pakistani predecessors. He became head of state after a coup organized by others had already succeeded. He hasn't engaged in self-enrichment or despicable behavior. He has tried (not always successfully) to preserve at least a veneer of legality and constitutionality.
But now he's being put to the supreme test of his character. Few military leaders have sacrificed their careers to the greater cause of genuine pluralism.
The latest polls show that Musharraf's political allies can't win more than 20 percent in the coming voting. Will he let the elections reflect Pakistanis' true sentiments, even though these might go against his political positions? Or, short of trying to change a people who might not agree with him, will he try to write the script in his favor?
Next week could provide the answer.