The Pakistani elections are in seven days, and both enthusiasm and tensions are rising. A straightforward election in a country with demonstrative crowds can be difficult enough to manage, but the Pakistani election is complicated by a terrorist interventions, the very present spectre of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, the autocratic-like actions of President Musharraf and the Q League, a sidelined and rebellious legal profession and the US Government’s very clear interest in stability in Pakistan. The Washington Post today reported that the oppositions may receive two thirds of the vote – if that does not happen, for whatever reason, violence is very likely to ensue.
From a public order perspective overlaid over the other concerns are questions about how the Pakistani police and military are going to be deployed and used during the election process, and what their own motivations are. Do they consider themselves tied to the present government or simply members of the government who are subservient to the people’s will? Will they participate in bolstering the Musharraf regime, or in toppling it?
The police and military are almost always seen as the symbols of the current government, and their actions over the next week will have a significant influence on events in Pakistan – many believe that if the Shah’s police and military had a better method of dealing with Public Order then they would have not been the blue touch paper of that revolution; that same risk exists here.
The effective management of Public Order is intended to give people the opportunity to make their feelings felt, to make clear their objections, and to try to cause change through ideally non-violent means. If violence ensues, public order management has ensured that the violence takes place within a context where the police are prepared to deal with it in a manner than optimises the chances of effective resolution, of the least damaging events that threaten violent regime change and anarchy.
At this time, an independent and effective police force would already have planned its responses to the crowds, put in place the plans to shape the crowds into the areas of their choosing where legitimate demonstrations can take place, and be contained if they threaten good order. They should be engaging with the community, with those who are likely to inspire and drive the crowds at the local level, in order to create an understanding. Of course, all this is in the ideal world, but the ideal world is not as far away as some might think. In situations such as this, where the potential for accidental loss of life, international political and media pressure and national turmoil, it comes down to the local level police to create the conditions for effective but safe demonstrations, which is in everyone’s interests. We can only hope that the Pakistani police feel the same way.