Elections in Pakistan

Of Winners and Losers

As election results continue to trickle after the 18 February elections in Pakistan, it is clear that what is happening is little short of a tsunami that has transformed the political landscape overnight. Irfan Husain reports

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf (photo: AP)
Within a year, Pakistan's President Musharraf has been reduced from an all-powerful president and army chief to a lonely figure

​​Among the big losers are the clerics of the Islamic alliance of the MMA. This grouping won an unexpected number of federal and provincial seats in the 2002 elections. Many Pakistanis alleged that this was engineered by the ISI, the powerful military intelligence agency that has played a major role in most elections here.

But now the alliance has been badly defeated by the secular ANP and PPP that will probably form a coalition government in the North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan. This should make a big difference to the way the war against the Taliban in the tribal areas is fought.

The other party to feel the wrath of the electorate is the 'Q' faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, a party cobbled together before the 2002 elections to serve as Musharraf's biggest coalition ally. Reduced to insignificance in the 18 February elections, this party has seen most of its heavyweights humbled by voters angry about high food prices and the recent shortages of electricity and gas.

A graceful exit for Musharraf?

But perhaps the biggest loser of all is Musharraf himself. Already diminished when he was forced by public opinion to retire from his post as army chief, he is suddenly looking more and more like a lame duck. Within a year, he has been reduced from an all-powerful president and army chief to a lonely figure without power or purpose. He would be wise to resign now rather than become locked into a struggle with the next government that he cannot win. But dictators are not famous for their graceful exits.

A policeman secures a school building that is being used as a polling station in Islamabad (photo: dpa)
Democracy strikes back: against the odds, elections in Pakistan were largely free and fair

​​The biggest winner is Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party that is certain to lead a coalition government in Islamabad. It has also swept the rural areas in Bhutto's home province of Sindh where a sympathy vote has carried the party to a clear majority. In Pakistan's biggest province of Punjab, Nawaz Sharif, the other leader who returned from exile recently, has done very well. His faction of the PML is expected to lead the coalition here. As this was the PML-Q's power base, the defeat in this province was particularly humiliating for Musharraf and his allies.

The probable contours of the future government will reflect the mindset of most Pakistanis. The PPP is a progressive, secular party, while Sharif's party, known as the PML-N, is a centrist grouping. If they are able to cooperate, they might give the country the strong, stable government it so desperately needs.

Free and fair elections

Earlier, many people had feared that given the likely results, the government would try to rig the elections, triggering public anger of the kind that surfaced when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on 27 December. In the event, Musharraf lived up to his pledge to hold free and fair elections. Ensuring this were over 200 foreign observers, the majority of them from the EU. Most of them declared the elections free of major irregularities.

Nevertheless, these polls were not free of violence. On election day and during the campaign, around a hundred people were killed, ten on 18 February alone. On the evening before the elections, a PML-N candidate from Lahore was shot dead. In many of these incidents, activists of the ruling PML-Q were allegedly involved.

One problem in building a coalition between the PPP and the PML-N is Nawaz Sharif's insistence that Musharraf must be removed, and the chief justice he sacked in November must be reinstated. Neither is a high priority with the PPP whose leader, Asif Zardari, Ms Bhutto's widower, has been talking of national reconciliation. To his credit, he has repeatedly said that he is not interested in revenge for his wife's murder.

Breaking the shackles of the military

photo: AP
Pakistani women voters visit a polling station to cast their ballots in the conservative city of Peshawar

​​One reason these elections have been generally viewed as transparent is the army's withdrawal from politics. General Ashfaq Kiyani, the new army chief, has made it clear that he is against playing any political role. This has given an opportunity for Pakistani politicians to finally break the shackles the military has bound the country in for so long.

The West has supported Musharraf ever since 9/11 because leaders there thought that the war on terror could only be waged successfully if the Pakistan army supported it. This gave Musharraf a role on the world stage that he revelled in. In the end, he became convinced that he was indispensable for Pakistan, and for the rest of the world. This hubris put him out of touch with reality, so until a day before the elections, he was confidently predicting a victory for the PML-Q.

Although it might be too early to write Musharraf off, it is clear that if he wishes to retain his presidency, he will have to play a severely curtailed role. In the Pakistani constitution, the president has no executive powers, and is a symbol of the state. Whether his ego will permit him to hand over power to the new prime minister remains to be seen.

Irfan Husain

© Qantara.de 2008

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