Voter indifference in Pakistan Musical chairs: Government corruption gives democracy a bad name.

February 04, 1997

BENAZIR BHUTTO has twice been dismissed as prime minister of Pakistan. Her rival, Nawaz Sharif, has had that distinction only once. But as the decisive winner of yesterday's parliamentary election, she gets a chance to even the score.

This was an election without shiny brights. It was an exercise in jaded disillusion. The real message of the historically low turnout, estimated at one voter for four eligible, was that Pakistanis feel betrayed by all politicians. The real loser was Pakistani democracy itself, which has been ruled either by autocratic generals or elected but discredited politicians. This time the voters were saying, who cares?

Ms. Bhutto, once a seeming champion of the downtrodden and of democratic values, is now identified with her regime's corruption, much of it centered on her husband, before her dismissal in November. Yet former Prime Minister Sharif had no better a reputation when in office. All that was proven now was that the voters were more disaffected with her than with him, because her sins in office were more recent.

For Mr. Sharif and for President Farooq Leghari, who set all this in motion, the challenge is to make democracy work by making voters care again. Pakistan is a traditional U.S. ally for reasons of Cold War balance of power which have largely disappeared. It is accused of developing nuclear warfare. It adjoins two countries of Islamic population that have succumbed to political extremism disguised as religious zeal, Iran and Afghanistan.

Those are reasons why the world has a stake in democracy working in Pakistan and making it a beacon of hope for South and Central Asia. For too long, its generals thwarted that hope. But so have its politicians. A people disillusioned is a people without hope. A people without idealism is resigned to despair. Pakistan's political leaders have just given the rest of Third World democracies an object lesson in what it is they should be trying to avoid.

Pub Date: 2/04/97

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