As a referendum on President Pervez Musharraf’s eight years in power, Pakistan’s national and provincial elections were damning. His ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) was routed, especially in the majority Punjab Province. And the coalition of religious parties he cobbled together to face down national and secular parties in the restive North West Frontier Province (NWFP) was itself voted down after five years of “Islamic” government. The civilian cloth Musharraf and Washington had used to cover the nakedness of his military rule was blown away on February 18, like dead leaves in a gale.

Many saw the vote as a posthumous revenge for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, since her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won a plurality of seats in the new assemblies. But the reading is glib. True, the rural poor in her native Sindh Province swept the PPP to shore on a tide of anger at her murder in December. The PPP also picked up seats in the NWFP and Baluchistan Province, raised by the same swell. Yet the tide ebbed in the political heartlands, the cities of Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad. The PPP did not win Pakistan’s urban capitals. Why?

Aitzaz Ahsan is a lawyer and a prominent PPP leader. Last year he led a successful mass movement of lawyers against Musharraf’s botched dismissal of Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. Ahsan believes the election results are a vindication of that campaign–and a lesson for his party. “After Benazir’s death we assumed the people, like us, would be driven by emotion,” he said. “But the elections showed people did not vote out of sympathy. They voted on the issues.”

The issues party in these elections was not the PPP. It was the Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (PML-N). In an impressive campaign Sharif etched two demands on the popular psyche: first, there could be no democracy under a military dictatorship. Second, there could be no recognition of Musharraf’s presidency unless Chaudhry and the other judges purged in last year’s emergency rule were reinstated.

It was a call that resounded with lawyers, journalists, students and civil society activists in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad–precisely those cities and middle-class constituencies galvanized by the campaign for the chief justice’s restoration. The PML-N made them its core supporters. The PPP’s core supporters, by contrast, were the rural poor and feudal lords of the provinces. For them the only issue was patronage and honoring Bhutto’s memory. They had almost nothing to say about where the PPP stood on Musharraf, military rule and the judiciary. “Yes,” concedes Ahsan, “Sharif stole the march on us.”

It could hardly have been otherwise. Bhutto returned to Pakistan last fall as part of a US-mediated trade with Musharraf. Very simply, in return for amnesty on corruption charges acquired during her time in office in the 1990s, she agreed to shore up another five-year Musharraf presidency. She pointedly told her cadres to tail, not lead, the mass campaign against his rule.

Urban PPP leaders like Ahsan welcomed Bhutto’s return, but they were dismayed by the terms. They believed the deal undermined the best chance in years to restore constitutional government. They also knew that truck with the dictator would alienate the young, educated, urban middle class, the very constituency it would need if it was ever to be a force again in the main cities. Bhutto was unapologetic. She said the dynamic would wheel in the PPP’s favor once she returned to the country and began campaigning. She also argued that there could be no transition to democracy without the support of Washington and the army. The only other road was violence and/or martial law. The debate smoldered on until her assassination. The election confirmed protagonists on both sides: the PPP could arouse the poor only because of her return and terrible death. But it lost the cities, and the urban middle class, because of the deal.

The debate will now be rekindled. On February 19 the PPP central executive, headed by Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, accepted the election results and began the arduous task of forming a government. Two roads lie before it, both legacies of Zardari’s late wife. But only one goes anywhere. Washington and Musharraf are counseling the road just taken: Zardari should revive the deal sealed by Benazir. In return for an “alliance of moderate forces in Pakistan”–and the premiership–the PPP should refrain from taking constitutional action against Musharraf. To hammer the point home, the State Department has said the Administration will continue to work with the Pakistani president “and whatever the new government may be,” as though the election results were simply a passing breeze.

It’s a nonstarter, says Ahsan. “If Mr. Zardari makes that commitment, Nawaz Sharif will leave the coalition. The PPP would then have to form a government with the pro-Musharraf Muslim League. We’ll be endorsing a leader and leadership the electorate has just rejected.” The PPP would also be headed for a collision with large sections of its own party as well as the lawyers, who plan to relaunch mass protests for Chaudhry’s and the other judges’ reinstatement.

A better road would be for the PPP to form a government with Nawaz Sharif and complete the fight the lawyers began: establishing a civilian government based on parliamentary democracy and constitutional rule. It would clearly mean the ousting of Musharraf, since none of those ideas are compatible with the authoritarian presidential system he has minted.

That route may anger the Bush Administration, but the real imponderable is the response of what is always the gravest threat to democracy here: Pakistan’s army. Its new chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, says he wants the army out of politics. He has taken a few cosmetic measures to remove officers from civilian jobs, and the army did permit elections free enough for the opposition to win. But there are historical precedents for this, says military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. “The military tends to allow free and fair elections whenever it has a crisis of legitimacy with the public. It momentarily releases control to keep its power intact.”

That power is immense. On Musharraf’s watch the army became a leviathan: it’s worth $20 billion in assets and controls a third of all manufacturing. Aside from the handful Kayani demobilized, there remain hundreds of retired officers in civilian posts in ministries and state corporations. Until recently Kayani was head of the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, one of the most politicized intelligence forces on earth. It was he–not the elected prime minister–who negotiated Musharraf’s deal with Bhutto. The idea that such an institution would voluntarily give up these interests is imaginary, especially when its hegemony is underwritten by billions in US aid. If the army has allowed more democratic space with these elections, it is because of the lawyers’ protests. Further retreats will require further protest–mass, nonviolent and constitutional. Despite her enormous courage, Benazir Bhutto always balked at that fight, usually under coaching from America. It’s important her party doesn’t make the same mistake.