By Kevin Bogardus - 03/20/07 06:14 PM EDT
Pakistan’s election season has already started and will intensify this fall. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been in exile since 1996 and her party, the Pakistan People’s Party, has struggled since Musharraf overthrew the civilian government in a 1999 coup.
The contract, filed by BKSH & Associates last month, discloses planned efforts to court American lawmakers, elite media and think tanks to advocate for democracy in Pakistan.
“The political circles in Pakistan have been debating this issue of free and fair elections,” said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “So if they crack the American discourse and make that part of the conversation here, that would be a smart move on their part.”
Preaching democracy and human rights, Bhutto and her party state that “the military regime” of Musharraf “cannot be expected to hold fair election [sic] given its track record,” according to the party’s website.
“We really need free and fair elections because the people of Pakistan should have their own government, not a dictatorship,” said Shafqat Tanweer, general secretary of the Pakistan People’s Party USA. “[Musharraf] is working more with the Taliban, which is not democracy.”
The contract arrives at a tense time for relations between Musharraf’s regime and the U.S. government. Along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have renewed their attacks on U.S. troops in the region and many have criticized the Pakistani leader for his inaction.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) introduced a resolution two weeks ago that U.S. aid to Pakistan should be determined by its ability to hold “free, fair and inclusive elections” as well as to prevent al Qaeda attacks. Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) have cosponsored the bill.
Dodd said Pakistan has played an “important and courageous role” in the war on terror but the country must transition to “a more democratic and open society with the full participation of all political parties.”
Similar language in the House bill seeking to implement the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, introduced by Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), passed the lower chamber earlier this year.
A top recipient of U.S. aid, Pakistan touts its status as an American ally in the war on terror.
“We are an important ally of the United States,” said Nadeem Kiani, press attaché for the Embassy of Pakistan. “That [legislation] would send a very wrong signal to the people of Pakistan who have always been skeptical of relations with the United States.”
BKSH filed the six-month contract last month with the Pakistan People’s Party to “promote democracy” and “provide the party’s views on the current political, economic and humanitarian situation on the ground in Pakistan.”
BKSH and its affiliates, parent company and PR giant Burson-Marsteller LLC and pollster firm Penn, Schoen, & Berland Associates, could earn more than $250,000 by the contract’s end in June 2007, according to documents filed with the Justice Department. Burson-Marsteller and Penn Schoen will work on the contract as well.
“As a matter of standard practice, we do not discuss administrative matters regarding current, past, or prospective clients with the media,” wrote Robert Tappan, president of Burson-Marsteller Washington, in an e-mail.
A Penn Schoen executive referred questions about the contract to Tappan. BKSH lobbyists did not return e-mails and calls.
The size of the contract is substantial, compared to the party’s only other active company. Public-relations firm T. Dean Reed has taken in roughly $70,000 since October 2004 to represent the Pakistan People’s Party, according to forms filed with the Justice Department.
The “B” in BKSH is for Charlie Black, a Republican lobbyist and former Reagan administration official. The campaign has Democratic connections as well: Mark Penn, a top adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), is president of Penn Schoen and CEO of Burson-Marsteller.
Kiani would not comment on the Pakistan People’s Party’s lobbying contract, but did term Bhutto’s exile as “self-imposed.”
“She is out of the country on her own free will. She is free to travel to Pakistan,” said the embassy press attaché.
The filed contract lays out an ambitious three-point campaign, concentrated in Washington and New York, to help the Pakistan People’s Party in “its endeavor toward free, open and transparent elections in Pakistan in 2007.”
First, BKSH and its affiliates plan to survey elite opinion in the West. Campaign materials will be developed and op-eds and white papers circulated.
With its foundation built, a “broad public affairs campaign” will be initiated, contacting administration officials and members of Congress. The Pakistan People’s Party will turn to “third-party supporters,” such as former U.S. government officials and think tanks, and Bhutto may host dinner parties for select individuals.
And finally, the campaign will focus on the press by scheduling editorial board meetings for Bhutto with The New York Times and The Washington Post and “target[ing] top journalists” like Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria and Times columnist Tom Friedman.
In addition, Pakistanis in America will be encouraged to talk about their experiences of living under military rule and their desire for democracy.
Kiani, however, remains optimistic about democracy in his country: “If you compare democracy in the United State or in Great Britain to Pakistan, that would be unfair. But you if look at other countries in the region, Pakistan is on the leading edge.”