Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Pakistan elections

We must take the outcome of the poll in Pakistan in the context of its inauspicious beginnings, principally the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. In that perspective, the outcome of the elections in Pakistan has been a pleasant surprise. There were no horrific suicide attacks, considering the situation, the polling was peaceful, there were no visible signs of rigging. Voter turnout was low, but that was to be expected given the fear of violence, and, more important, the past experience of vote fraud. The big surprise of the election was that it defied prognostications that it would be rigged against the opposition. One major factor was the heroic role of the Pakistani media especially the visual media which showed its clout and value for the first time in this election.

I disagree with people who think that the verdict was a major blow to Musharraf. After all, given the events of the past year, he would have to be remarkably sanguine to think he could actually pull off a victory. Indeed, given the circumstances, the King’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) has done remarkably well. Indeed, the outcome as it is—requiring the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) to cobble together a coalition is the best Musharraf could have hoped, and he has got it. PPP as the largest party will lead the coalition anyway, but also because it is the only party to have a presence in all of Pakistan’s provinces.

Musharraf’s great advantage will be that the control of the PPP rests in the hands of the somewhat shady Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto. In his first and rambling press conference, Zardari has signaled that his agenda is not the removal of the general.

According to Dawn, “Mr Zardari parried several questions on issues like reinstatement of deposed judges, possible impeachment of President Musharraf and the party’s nominee for the office of the prime minister.”

After all, don't forget that Benazir had returned to Pakistan as part of a deal through which she would provide legitimacy to the general's crumbling regime, in exchange for the waiver of corruption charges against her and Zardari. Benazir may be gone, but the deal remains. My hunch is that even though large sections of his party men are deeply suspicious of the general’s inability to protect their beloved leader, Zardari will carry the day.

Though his performance has been spectacular, considering where he has come from, Nawaz Sharif lacks the numbers. But he has a clear agenda, one that understands that the election outcome is only the beginning of the battle for democracy in Pakistan. He wants the restoration of the 60-odd judges who were forced out of office by Musharraf in November. He is also seeking the removal of a amendments that make a mockery of the country’s 1973 constitution. Above all, Sharif who has clearly matured in his exile, also understands that the country needs to set clear limits for its army. It is too late to make the army apolitical as in India. But there could be mutually agreed institutional arrangements such as the ones that obtain in Turkey. Nawaz, too, has come back through some kind of a deal. Though not a direct one, but one operating through the Saudis.

The showing of the Awami National Party in the North West Frontier Province has been outstanding . They have bearded the mullahs in their own dens. They have given the lie to the belief that all Pakhtuns want is war. As Afsandyar Wali Khan, the leader of the party has pointed out, the Pakhtuns want “talim” or education, and everything else associated with development. The victory of the party could begin the process of getting back the allegiance of those who have been misguided into thinking that jehad is the only answer to their problems.

The outcomes in Punjab, Sindh, and NWFP suggest that governments there will have to be in the form of coalitions. This is not a bad thing, because it will help kick-start the process of reconciliation. The PPP, as the party which has a presence in all three states will have special responsibility since it will also run the national government.

That other stakeholder

This said, we need to point out that the elections only related part of the stakeholders of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. There is another part, some say the larger, that wields power that was not up for arbitration through an election. In the coming months, the attitude of this party, the Pakistan army, will be the key to the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. At present, the army has adopted a low profile because its reputation has sunk along with its erstwhile chief Pervez Musharraf. But though the army has delinked itself from Musharraf, it is unlikely to allow the politicians to bully him either. All said and done he is one of theirs and everything he did had the sanction of the Corps Commanders Conference, Pakistan's other parliament.

There are some habits which will take time and effort to overcome. In some areas—nuclear weapons and support to terrorism—only the attitude of the Pakistan army matters. There is an abundant record to show that civilian prime ministers and presidents were denied any information on these issues, even when they formally held power.

So, all said and done, Pakistan has made a good beginning, but it still has a long way to go before it becomes a “normal” state.

No comments: