Voters in Pakistan have rejected the forces of autocracy, but will Washington and the military acquiesce?
The Pakistani electorate has given a decisive verdict against the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) – PML(Q) – the party which supported president Pervez Musharraf and his duplicitous rule. Although the overall mandate for the national assembly is fractured with no party winning an absolute majority, the emergence of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) as the single largest party and the marginalisation of Musharraf’s supporters is the telling story of the elections.
It was widely expected that with a sympathy wave after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the PPP would win a large number of seats, perhaps close to a majority. But, boosted by a strong showing in Punjab province, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) – PML(N) – led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was able to notch up 66 seats, not much behind the 88 won by the PPP. The manner in which the PML(Q) lost, with several of its prominent leaders, such as former prime minister Chaudhury Shujaat Hussain, biting the dust revealed the resentment against Musharraf’s rule. Another aspect of the verdict was the comprehensive rejection of extremist religious forces with secular parties such as the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP) winning a substantial number of seats.
The elections were held against the backdrop of militant violence and voting had been postponed after the assassination of Bhutto. A positive aspect was the non-interference from the military following a professional order by the chief of army staff, Ashfaq Kayani. By delivering a verdict against both pro-Musharraf forces as well as the radical religious right, the Pakistani people have taken forward the surge of democratic activity and activism that began with the movement for the reinstatement of chief justice Iftikhar Choudhury. Musharraf was “re-elected” to the post of president by the legislature in October 2007 by invoking an amendment to the Constitution. This election was later validated by a pliant judiciary after the incumbent chief justice and other judges were removed during a declared emergency.
Hanging in the balance now is the president’s future, as Nawaz Sharif has called for his impeachment and also for the reinstatement of the ousted members of the judiciary. The PPP led by Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari has remained non-committal but the overall electoral verdict necessitates an understanding between the PPP and the PML(N), which means that these issues will have to be discussed by the two parties. A two-thirds majority is required to impeach Musharraf, to realise which the PPP-PML(N) combine would have to seek support from other smaller parties.
At the end of the week talks were under way between these parties and the ANP, and from all indications it is now a matter of not if but when Musharraf will be eased out of power. In the past, democratic rule in Pakistan has seen the tenures of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto marred by corruption and politics of clientalism and patronage. The resultant instability had given the powerful military an excuse to intervene in politics. Ever since Musharraf’s coup in 1998, constitutional rules have been re-written or bent to prolong his presidency, helped particularly by the writ of the military in Pakistan. A big question is if the current position of the military under Kayani to stay out of politics will continue. Entrenched as the military is in all areas of Pakistani economy and society, outsiders can only hope democracy and civilian rule will be strong enough to keep out the men in uniform.
Another important imponderable is the role that will be played by the west, particularly the United States, which has always meddled in the internal affairs of Pakistan. The US had considered Musharraf an ally and had hoped to continue its relationship with a troika of Musharraf, Kayani and the next prime minister in order to prosecute the so-called war on terror with Pakistan’s help. With the high weightage provided in the mandate to anti-Musharraf forces, such an arrangement now seems difficult to sustain.
Apart from extremism in regions such as Waziristan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and violence in the main cities, Pakistan is also faced with economic troubles with high prices of essential items and shortages of important commodities. The previous government had built growth on privatisation, overseas remittances and US aid. Both the PPP and PML(N) are expected to adopt centrist policies but the question is if the post-election alliance will be able to address the pressing economic issues of the day and prevent instability. The next government’s ability to honour the mandate will ultimately depend upon whether the democratic environment created in the elections can remain free from yet another spell of military interference and US influence.