The Pakistan verdict: an Indian view

27 February 2008
The voter has severely punished the PML-Q's stalwarts, including a galaxy of former Ministers and Pakistan's most venal and shrewd politicians. They belong to well-entrenched "political families" with strong clan and kinship connections. They know which side of the bread is buttered and typically win all elections -- no matter on whose ticket. Their ignominious defeat clarifies the central meaning of the results. The message for Musharraf is simple. He asked the people to vote for his supporters. They resoundingly rejected his appeal. If he has any sense, he should quit and roll back his recent decisions, including the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) of November last. Or else, instead of becoming the "father figure" to the next government, which he boastfully offered to do, he may turn into a pariah. The election result totally disproves the doomsayers' view that Pakistan can never develop a democratic ethos. It has far-reaching implications for balances within Pakistan's state structures. Nothing should be allowed to obscure its character as a referendum against the Establishment, including the army, and for a clean, decisive vote for democracy. Even at a distance, one cannot fail to be impressed by the strength of the anti-army sentiment in Pakistan, probably the most intense since the Bangladesh War. This is clearly linked to the military's misrule, corruption, greed and links with United States agendas. This sentiment coincides with the decision of army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani to sever the military's overt links with politics, withdraw army personnel from top civilian jobs, and declare categorically that the army would play no role in elections. One effect of this was an election which, despite flaws, was one of Pakistan's freest and fairest. This suggests the army refused to let Musharaf rig the polls on a large scale. The army's distancing from the political process and administrative functions augurs well for the prospect of demilitarisation of the Pakistani state, politics and society. Democratically inclined people everywhere must welcome this. It it's consolidated, the trend would lead to a historic breakthrough. The election results have 5 noteworthy features. First, the people voted in a rational, discriminating and unsentimental way. They were not excessively swayed by "sympathy" for the Pakistan People's Party owing to Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Unlike in the past, they didn't give an overwhelming mandate to the PPP or the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). Second, the PPP won 88 of the National Assembly's 272 elected seats. Besides its traditional stronghold, Sindh, it has also done well in the North-West Frontier Province and southern Punjab. The PML(N) retained its base in Punjab and won 66 seats--surpassing expectations--because of its strong anti-Musharraf stand. This outcome, like the provincial assembly results, reaffirms the federal character of Pakistan's polity. Third, the popular mandate favours a PPP-PML(N) coalition which also carries other parties like the Mohajir-dominated Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and Afsandyar Wali Khan's Awami National Party. Such a multi-party coalition will have a broad and diverse base. Fourth, the results unambiguously point to the public's disillusionment with the religious extremists. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which won 56 NA seats in 2002, suffered a stunning defeat, winning just 5 seats. This vindicates the view that the 2002 election was exceptional because it followed the US invasion of Afghanistan. Until then, religious extremists only commanded under 3 percent of the vote. Equally important is the setback the MMA suffered in the NWFP assembly. It managed to bag a pathetic 8 seats (of 96). By contrast, the secular, left-leaning ANP won an impressive 29 seats and the PPP 18. In Balochistan too, the MMA's tally fell from 12 to 7 seats (total, 51). In the absence of a boycott by Baloch nationalists, the PML(Q) too would have been wiped out. The MMA's comprehensive rout undermines Musharraf's claim, often bought by the West, that the mullahs continue to be a major force and that he is the sole bulwark against them, in particular, the possibility that they might gain control over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Musharraf will now find it hard to play "the mullah card". And fifth, an alliance led by the PPP and the PML(N) offers Pakistan the best chance to address two urgent tasks: making a decisive break with military rule, and granting autonomy to the provinces. The first is a precondition for genuine democratisation. And without the second, the very existence of the state may be in jeopardy, given the autonomist and secessionist movements in Balochistan, the NWFP and the tribal agency areas, and resentment in Sindh at the excessive weight Punjab commands in government and politics. A broad-horizon agenda awaits the next federal government. To fulfil it, the PPP and PML(N) must reach a power-sharing arrangement which recognises but goes beyond their different social bases and regional characteristics. It also means that the PPP leadership under Asif Ali Zardari must firmly rule out a deal with the Musharraf regime or the PML(Q), which gives the old order a measure of legitimacy and prolongs the military's dominance in Pakistan. Zardari, implicated in corruption cases, is vulnerable to pressure and manipulation by Musharraf as well as the US. He hasn't asked Musharraf to step down, nor ruled out "cooperation" with him. Nor has he demanded the restoration of the judges dismissed under the November 3 PCO. There is an outer chance that Zardari will be tempted to try one of those super-opportunistic cut-and-paste jobs for which Pakistani politicians have gained notoriety--for instance, by stitching together a coalition between his party and elements from the discredited PML(Q). That would completely violate the popular mandate, and make a mockery of the elementary democratic norm that a ruling party defeated in an election should not be part of the next coalition government. It will almost certainly split the PPP and discredit and isolate Zardari. He must desist from that terrible course. Pakistan today stands at a crossroads, similar to the turning point after the birth of Bangladesh. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto then squandered a precious opportunity to free Pakistan from the stranglehold of the army, which got discredited because it lost the war. He chose to collude with the army, and promoted Gen Zia-ul Haq, who hanged him and plunged Pakistan into the Dark Ages. One can only hope that Bhutto's son-in-law doesn't repeat his blunder by bestowing legitimacy on Musharraf and inviting the army to play a larger-than-life role just when it is withdrawing from politics. The immediate priority is to rescind the November PCO, restore Chief Justice Choudhry and other dismissed judges, and cancel Musharraf's arbitrary decrees. All South Asians must respect the Pakistani people's verdict, and look beyond Musharraf. He's nobody's "best bet in Pakistan". Indians must welcome the fact that the peace process now may have a wider constituency in Pakistan than Musharraf. This is great news for India-Pakistan relations and for the prospect of a peaceful, prosperous South Asia.
Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament.