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.