After 1970, Pakistan has never ever witnessed a free and fair election. There is no reason to believe that the February 18 elections will be any different. The stakes for Pervez Musharraf, his cronies (the Pakistan Muslim League and allied parties), his patrons (the Americans) and perhaps also for his erstwhile core constituency (the Pakistan army) are so high that the luxury of a clean election cannot be permitted.
Despite the fact that the regime has gone to great lengths to cover its tracks and ensure that no nosey-parker ever stumbles on any evidence of rigging, Musharraf's hand-picked attorney general, the notorious Malik Qayyum, who should ideally be in jail for all the crimes he has committed first as a judge and later as the first law officer of Pakistan, let the cat out of the bag when he was inadvertently caught on tape telling an unknown person that the polls will be massively rigged in favour of Musharraf's supporters.
Chances are that at the end of the day, no solid evidence of rigging will emerge. And yet, the results will prove whether or not Musharraf lived up to his solemn assurances that the polls will be free and fair.
As things stand, if the election is clean then the PPP will almost certainly emerge not just as the largest party but also close to a simple majority. The PML (Nawaz) should be the second largest party and between them the PPP and PML-N should have close to two-thirds of the seats in the national assembly.
Back of the envelope calculations suggest that the PPP should get between 110-120 seats, PML-N around 50-60 seats, PML (the Pervez Musharraf League) will have 30-40 seats, the MMA 20-25 seats, MQM 20-25 seats, ANP 15-20 seats and the rest will be shared by independents and smaller parties.
Since such a result will be an unmitigated disaster for Musharraf and his underlings, the final outcome will have to be tweaked to throw up a more favourable setting. The big question is how much to tweak because an overkill could easily make the whole exercise look like a farce.
Ideally Musharraf will want a result in which his supporters hold the balance of power in the next national assembly. This means that if he can rob the opposition of a few seats each and raise the number of his supporters to around 110-120 then he will be able to control the both the formation and the functioning of the next government.
What is more, the result will be of a sort that rejecting it will not be an option and accepting it will amount to playing into Musharraf's hands. Most importantly, Musharraf's patrons will accept the verdict.
What is preventing Musharraf from rigging the elections blatantly is the fear is that if the results are rejected there could widespread street disturbances that will almost certainly sound the death knell of his regime.
At a time when the North West Frontier Province and Balochistan are in the throes of armed insurgency, the last thing that Pakistan needs is chaos and anarchy on the streets of Punjab and Sindh. In a sense, these elections are more about preventing the situation in Punjab and Sindh from spiralling out of control than about a transition to genuine democracy.
But Musharraf and his lackeys are prone to taking the chance that these fears are more imagined than real and that by indulging in some brinkmanship they can easily get a verdict of their choice.
Frankly, Musharraf knows that he has no option but to rig the polls. If an opposition government comes into power, his game is up. Even if they don't have a two-thirds majority needed to impeach him, a mere vote of no-confidence will be enough to make his position completely untenable.
On the other hand a highly split verdict lets him stay in the power game for some more time. In the past whenever Musharraf has been confronted with a dire situation in which his survival is at stake, he has always taken his chances and so far managed to stay on in power.
The blatant disregard of the Supreme Court decision allowing Nawaz Sharif to return to Pakistan, and the imposition of martial law to remove the judges and muzzle the media, are some examples of how far he can go to retain power. He is now once again facing a similar situation and the odds are that he will not be averse to trying a little more brinkmanship.
In Musharraf's calculations, there is a reasonable chance that the sort of disturbances that analysts are predicting will not happen. Sure, there will be the odd demonstration and protest, but this can be quelled easily, especially since the judiciary is packed with his men, the administration is in his pocket and the election commission operates on his instructions.
And there are very good reasons for Musharraf to think this way.
Despite knowing that the elections will be rigged, the main opposition political parties have jumped into the fray because of two reasons: one, they could not afford to give a walk-over to the Musharraf camp-followers; and second and more important, they were not sure if by boycotting the polls they will be able to create the conditions for launching a mass movement against the regime. The opposition game-plan was to use the election campaign to mobilise their supporters and build a momentum that could then be used to launch a mass-movement in case the elections were stolen. But Benazir Bhutto's assassination has made this game-plan somewhat ineffective. While on the one hand, Benazir's assassination has created a wave of revulsion against the Musharraf regime and in favour of the opposition, on the other hand political campaigns of political parties came to a grinding halt, thereby robbed the opposition parties of the chance to mobilise their supporters and workers.
The spate of suicide bombings ended whatever little large-scale political activity was taking place. Today, the political campaigns are limited to small corner meetings, press releases, advertisements on television channels and in newspapers, and television talk-shows and interviews.
In a sense then, things are pretty much back to where they were in terms of the ability of opposition parties to bring their workers out on the streets against the regime. The sort of momentum that the opposition hoped to build is not visible. There is no doubt a lot of anger, disgust, and disenchantment with the regime. But this kind of sentiment has been present for a couple of years now and yet the opposition politicians were not able to harness it and launch any kind of mass movement against the regime.
Therefore, if it is Musharraf's assessment that he can get away with enough rigging to play puppeteer and that at worst there will be only the die-hard party workers that the regime will have to tackle on the streets of Pakistan, then he cannot be faulted for making such cynical calculations.
Even if Musharraf genuinely want to play with a straight bat, his minions -- namely, Pervez Elahi and others like him -- are desperate enough to steal the elections. In fact, given the mindset and political culture that people like Pervez Elahi represent, there is every chance that they will be unrestrained and quite blatant in trying to tilt the results in their favour.
To an extent, their ability to do so will depend on the army. Under the new army chief, the Pakistan army is on the face of it adopting a hands-off approach to the elections. But this sort of an approach is not going to be of much help. If anything, it is like giving complete freedom to the regime to do what it wants. If the army is really serious about a free and fair election, then it must actively ensure that no one is allowed to steal the elections.
The Pakistan army actually faces a no win situation: if the elections are stolen very brazenly, then there is every possibility that the army will have to douse the fires that engulf the country; on the other hand, if the results are scientifically managed then there will be prolonged political instability, something that Pakistan can ill-afford at this point in time. Clearly, very interesting times lie ahead for Pakistan.