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Judgment day

Saturday 23 February 2008, by Irfan Husain

Pakistan’s election was a major defeat for the Islamists, the president’s allies, and most of all for Pervez Musharraf himself. But what happens next? Irfan Husain assesses a big moment and the challenges ahead.

The elections in Pakistan on 18 February 2008 have transformed the country’s political landscape. The reports of pre-poll rigging were confounded, the spin Musharraf tried to put on the results disregarded. In a veritable tsunami, many establishment politicians have been swept away, and Musharraf’s grip on power is looking more tenuous than ever before.

The second biggest losers are the clerics of the Islamic alliance of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA): the number of seats it won in the national assembly shrank from fifty-six in the previous elections in 2002 to a mere five this time around. Many Pakistanis attribute the MMA’s surprising success in 2002 to the machinations of the Inter-Services Intelligence (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, leftist Awami National Party (ANP) and the PPP; these two parties are set to form a coalition government in the North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan. This change should greatly weaken the homegrown Taliban who have wreaked such havoc in Pakistan and in Afghanistan recently. Denied the political protection they received from the MMA, they will find it difficult to operate as freely as they had become accustomed to. It is to prevent such an outcome that they killed scores of innocent Pakistanis in the run-up to the elections.

The other party to feel the wrath of the electorate is the Quaid-e-Azam ("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 relative insignificance in the 18 February elections, this party has seen most of its heavyweights - including party president Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain and Pakistan’s former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri - humbled by voters angry about high food prices and the recent shortages of electricity and gas.

But 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 and sounding 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 with little power or purpose. An article he has written for the Washington Post reinforces this sense of diminishment, even pathos, in the way that it makes celebration of a "milestone" election the prelude to a more or less openly plea for the "continued support" of the United States (see "A Milestone on the Road to Democracy", Washington Post, 22 February 2008). Musharraf 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. In a last throw of the dice, he is now trying to persuade the PPP to form a government with the PML-Q and the Muttahida-Quami-Movement (MQM), an ethnic party based in urban Sindh.

The winner’s test

The biggest winner in terms of number of seats won is Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP); it 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 carried the party to a clear majority. In Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province with over 60% of the population, Nawaz Sharif, the other leader who returned from exile in late 2007, has done far better than even he could have hoped for. His faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (the PML-N) is expected to lead the coalition here. As this was the PML-Q’s power-base, defeat in this province was particularly humiliating for Musharraf and his allies.

The probable contours of the future government reflect the mindset of most Pakistanis. The PPP is a progressive, secular party, while Sharif’s PML-N is a centrist grouping. If they are able to cooperate - as the announcement on the evening of 21 February of their agreement to form a coalition suggests they can - they might give the country the strong, stable government it so desperately needs. However, if Musharraf’s efforts to trap the PPP into an alliance with the discredited PML-Q succeed, the result will be a weak arrangement that can be manipulated by Musharraf. A sign of his desperation is the sudden efforts by the caretaker government to expedite hearings of the corruption charges against Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, in Switzerland. He is hoping to use this long-running case as a lever against the PPP leader.

The news of the PPP and the PML-N’s deal should end ongoing efforts by Musharraf - and his United States backers - to persuade Asif Zardari to cooperate. Most people in the country are relieved that a stable government is finally in sight. The stock market had already reacted to the relatively peaceful elections by posting massive gains, while the rupee rose instantly against the dollar.

Many people had feared that pre-election opinion polls showing Musharraf to have a popularity rating of only 12% would ensure that the government would try to rig the elections, risking more turmoil and public anger of the kind that surfaced when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on 27 December 2007. In the event, Musharraf largely lived up to his pledge to hold free and fair elections. More than 200 foreign observers, the majority of them from the European Union, helped ensure this outcome. However, the interim report produced by the EU team pointed to clear signs of pre-poll manipulation in which PML-Q candidates were helped by local governments as well as state functionaries. In Karachi, where the MQM swept the polls as it does traditionally, there were many reports of widespread electoral fraud.

The elections may have been unexpectedly fair by Pakistani standards, but the 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.

Now, the building of a coalition between the PPP and the PML-N will need to address two demands of Nawaz Sharif: that Musharraf be removed, and that Iftikhar Chaudhry (the chief justice sacked and placed under effective house arrest by the president in November 2007, following his suspension in March) be reinstated immediately. Neither is a high priority for Asif Zardari: his emphasis on national reconciliation clearly indicates his wish to avoid a direct confrontation with Musharraf - and possibly the army - as soon as the elected government takes over. To his credit, he has repeatedly said that he is not interested in revenge for his wife’s murder, quoting her own words: "A return to democracy is the best revenge."

The presidential ghost

One reason these elections have been generally viewed as largely transparent is the army’s current withdrawal from politics. General Ashfaq Kayani, the successor to Musharraf as 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 in Washington and London 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. In an interview with Jemima Khan for the (London) Independent, published in Pakistan on election day, he dismissed deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry as "the scum of the earth", and admitted that the amnesty that permitted Benazir Bhutto and her husband to return to Pakistan had been a mistake, and granted under western pressure. This contribution to public debate may return to haunt him.

It is still too early to write Musharraf’s political obituary. But 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 wields only titular powers and has no executive authority. But he has become so accustomed to wield power without check or balance that it is doubtful if he is now capable of withdrawing to the president’s symbolic position. Pakistan’s elections may be the beginning of the end for Pervez Musharraf; but the endgame has some way to go.