The world has rightly welcomed President Pervez Musharraf’s retirement as Army head and announcement that emergency rule will end on Dec. 16. However, a crucial question remains. Is Pakistan heading toward a democratic future? Parliamentary elections are currently scheduled for Jan. 8. Among many worrying signs of corruption, the election commission is biased and not acting on complaints of fraud.

Yet if credible elections are not held, it will have dangerous consequences for Pakistan and the rest of the world community: Extremism will continue to grow, putting everyone at risk. The world must act to prevent this. It must insist on free and fair elections in Pakistan. President Musharraf’s last term in office demonstrated that dictatorship has fuelled extremism.

Democracy offers the best hope of containing extremism. Yet democracy depends on a fair

electoral process and an independent election commission willing and able to implement Pakistan’s electoral laws to prevent vote fraud. That is not happening. “Improvised” voting stations, a pseudonym for ghost polling stations, dot practically every parliamentary constituency.

Mayors continue to control guns and police and government resources and are using them shamelessly to campaign for government candidates. The election commission has asked for “a report” on such malpractices but has taken no concrete efforts to stop them. On top of all this, the media remains gagged, opposition leaders remain imprisoned, voter lists and voting locations have not yet been provided to opposition parties or to the general public in final print or electronic format, and no effort has been made by the pliant electoral commission to regularly consult with political parties on these issues.

Put quite simply, the elections are being stitched up to give the country a continuation of the outgoing government — one that failed to prevent the spread of militancy, extremism, and terrorism. Major terrorist attacks, including the latest plot discovered in Germany this summer, tracked terrorists’ footsteps back to Pakistan’s northern areas. Unless there is a change in the status quo, the past will repeat itself. But that change can only come when the world community puts its weight behind fair elections and its faith in the people of Pakistan. The international community must send a clear message that it will not be an accessory to this coming crime. It must not wait to see if the elections on Jan. 8 are free and fair.

At the very least, America can and should prod Musharraf to give Pakistanis an independent

election commission, a neutral caretaker administration, and an end to blatant vote manipulation. The US is the world’s most powerful democracy. By standing up for democracy at this critical time, Washington can give this nuclear-armed nation an opportunity to reverse the tide of extremism that today threatens not only Pakistan but the larger world community as well. — The Christian Science Monitor