In an election that produced many surprises, perhaps the greatest surprise was that it proceeded smoothly. In the weeks leading up to the polls, opposition parties and civil society alike had expressed fears that President Pervez Musharraf and his loyalists in the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) would rig the elections massively. As it happened, they didn’t–or couldn’t. Polling was largely fair and free. Intelligence agencies in Pakistan routinely manipulate national elections to produce results of their choosing. That the all-powerful army chose not to meddle this time is significant.
Since Gen. Yahya Khan presided over the dismemberment of the country after a humiliating war with India in 1971, seldom has the military’s stock been so low. Not only is the army loathed for the imposition of a repressive state of emergency, but its intelligence agencies are also widely believed to have been involved in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, leader of Pakistan’s largest political party. Conscious perhaps of the military’s increasing unpopularity, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the new army chief, had begun reducing the military’s encroachment into civilian life soon after taking office last November, withdrawing his generals from key civilian posts to which Musharraf had appointed them. Almost certainly a strategic retreat in the face of intense pressure from ordinary Pakistanis and increasingly impatient Western aid donors, this withdrawal nonetheless provides much-needed space for civilians to reassert themselves.
Another unexpected but wholly welcome result of this election was the humiliation of religious parties. Campaigning on the platform of anti-Americanism in the 2003 election (and allegedly assisted by some creative number-crunching behind the scenes by military agencies), a coalition of religious parties had, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, not only seized control of two of the country’s four provinces but also netted fifty seats in the national assembly. This election saw them routed. Not only did they lose Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP)–the two provinces bordering Afghanistan–but their takings at the center plummeted from fifty to three. News of the religious parties’ defeat in Peshawar, the capital of NWFP, triggered street celebrations. Inept, repressive and corrupt, the mullahs were eventually thrown out by an electorate that places prosperity and security far above religious rhetoric. This election, then, successfully debunks the notion that Pakistan is a nation of religious zealots. Provided the newly elected democrats do not disappoint, there is reason to hope now that the rise of liberal democracy will defeat the vestiges of religious extremism in Pakistan.
No less stinging was the rebuke delivered to Musharraf and his allies. The PML, commonly known as the King’s Party, lost two-thirds of its seats in Parliament, with twenty-two former cabinet ministers failing to get re-elected. Since the sacking of an intransigent Chief Justice and the subsequent crackdown on civil society last year, Musharraf and the PML had hemorrhaged support. What little goodwill they had built up through economic growth in the past five years was lost through recent microeconomic mismanagement, resulting in acute power shortages and spiraling wheat prices. Without the carapace of his military uniform and with his parliamentary support in tatters, President Musharraf stands exposed, isolated and deeply unpopular. He has no obvious role left to play in a democratic dispensation. If he were less autocratic, he would voluntarily step aside. But having dismissed demands from the victorious parties for his resignation as “way off,” this ex-commando is more likely to fight to the bitter end, resulting probably in his impeachment. George W. Bush, though he loathes to admit mistakes, also will find it difficult to continue backing his old ally in the war against terror in the face of such wholesale rejection from his own people. The next American government would do far better to ally itself with the people of Pakistan and their chosen representatives than with a discredited, illegitimate President and an unpopular army.