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.
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The fact that Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has emerged as the overall winner and the only truly nationalist party with a footprint in every province, is no surprise. Indeed, the surprise is that it didn’t bag more seats. The sympathy vote generated by Bhutto’s murder was probably diluted by her party’s perceived readiness to do business with a dictator. Even after her assassination, Asif Ali Zardari, her widower, continued to claim that his party had no quarrel with Mr. Musharraf and obligingly did not mention Musharraf’s bête noire, the sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. (But had it not been for Bhutto’s willingness to engage with Musharraf, perhaps this election would not have taken place at all.) The PPP has not received a sufficient majority to form government. For this it will have to enter into a coalition with another party, most likely the Muslim League of the Saudi-backed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the second-biggest winner.
Zardari, who was bequeathed the chairmanship of the PPP in Bhutto’s will, has a difficult task ahead. Having swept northern Punjab, Sharif’s party is resurgent. Coalition governments are notoriously hard to manage, but particularly so for these old adversaries. In the past their one imperative had been to achieve power and then jostle to keep it, at whatever cost to their own credibility and the democratic process. Indeed, Bhutto and Sharif habitually sided with the establishment to topple each other’s elected governments from power throughout the 1990s.
But more is at stake now than ever before. Both Sharif and Bhutto had been elected prime minister twice and dismissed twice on charges of corruption and misrule. Zardari and Sharif are aware that they are running out of political lives. Regional tensions are at a simmering point. Unemployment, inflation and lack of security has made the public less forgiving and more demanding, as seen in the defeat of the PML and the religious parties. There is real anger, which boiled over in the days following Bhutto’s assassination.
Much will depend on how the opposition parties conduct themselves after the election. Thus far both Sharif and Zardari have made all the right noises, but now they will have to put their talk into practice. Sharif, whose party did not win any seats in Sindh or Baluchistan, must recognize that if any single party can heal the rifts between the provinces, it is the PPP. Hence he must not try to strengthen his bargaining power in the coalition by accepting defectors from the ragtag remnants of the PML. Zardari in turn must respect Sharif’s mandate and not block his wishes to address the issue of the sacked judiciary. The mullahs may have lost at the polls, but Al Qaeda and Taliban-backed insurgents still prowl the border with Afghanistan. To fight them effectively, the army and new government will have to act in unison, the government rallying the people behind the army. The government of NWFP, dominated now by secular ethnic Pashtuns, will have a key role in rehabilitating an unpopular Punjabi army with their tribesmen.
Given their limited choices, the people of Pakistan have chosen wisely. Now it is up to the elected parties to rule wisely. Sharif and Zardari must usher in a stable, democratic Pakistan. They must ensure that they do not provide the army with the excuse for yet another coup. This is the time for healing, redemption and reconciliation. He who manages all three will be the ultimate winner of this election.