The fact that such a coalition is now being construed as a sign of hope does not necessarily redound to the credit of the parties in question: their mettle is yet to be tested and it remains to be seen whether either or both of them have overcome their more egregious tendencies towards misgovernance. But it does serve as a pretty scathing indictment of the Musharraf years.
Many of those who greeted the advent of the general’s rule as some sort of a daybreak subsequently found plenty of cause for disillusionment. Last week’s popular verdict seems like a reasonably accurate reflection of public opinion. It could be argued, however, that the fairly unequivocal repudiation of Pervez Musharraf is not the most relevant aspect of the election. The striking paucity of choice seems more significant: the only available option for voters determined to reject the current crop of failures was to resurrect failures from the recent past, albeit in the expectation the latter would have imbibed at least a few useful lessons from their experiences since 1999.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be: Musharraf had vowed early on that Sharif and Benazir Bhutto would have no role to play in the “real” democracy he planned to introduce. He went back on his word not because he changed his mind, but as a result of pressures from abroad. However, his backtracking was also tantamount to a tacit agreement that the politicians he had nurtured didn’t quite come up to scratch. The evisceration of the opportunistic PML-Q was among the more gratifying consequences of the elections, second only to the demise of the mullahs.
In an interview with Jemima Khan shortly before the elections, Musharraf had held out the prospect of a majority for the PML-Q in collaboration with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, and when his interlocutor pointed out that opinion polls presaged a rather different outcome, the president dismissed them as a conspiracy. Perhaps it would have been unrealistic to expect a vastly different prediction: Musharraf must naturally have been loath to admit that his allies were doomed, despite their belated efforts to distance themselves from the ex-general. His absurdly inaccurate forecast nonetheless conveys the impression of a ruler detached from reality.
The sort of pressures applied to Musharraf are now being brought to bear on Sharif and Asif Zardari, with American and British diplomats imploring them to cohabit with Musharraf rather than rendering his position untenable. Even with the Awami National Party thrown in as the third partner in a coalition, in any effort to impeach Musharraf the next governing alliance would fall short of the required two-thirds majority, so in the short term there may be no alternative to cohabitation. However, it would be incredibly risky to leave intact the president’s power to dissolve parliament - a power that has been misused so religiously in the past couple of decades.
At the weekend, a report in Britain’s The Daily Telegraph quoted unnamed presidential aides as saying that Musharraf has an exit strategy that could be deployed sooner than anyone expects, especially in the event of moves towards impeachment, or an attempt by parliament to restore the judges whom the president arbitrarily sacked last November. It suggests he considered resigning as soon as the election results were in - which would probably have been a wise move, given the nature of the verdict. On the other hand, Musharraf and his spokesmen have indicated that he intends to remain in his post until 2012.
That forecast clearly involves an element of wishful thinking, and one can only hope the president realises that his legitimacy as head of state is bound to be questioned without an endorsement from the new assemblies. Relying exclusively on the support of the armed forces and his Anglo-American fan club (which may well effectively fold up when power changes hands in the US early next year) is hardly a feasible long-term option. A relatively graceful exit within the next few weeks would be infinitely preferable to a messy ouster later on, and one can only hope the military hierarchy will summon up the wisdom to advise Musharraf accordingly.
In the event, this is likely to be construed not so much as interference in the political process but as an effort to distance the army from political affairs - which is a sine qua non for sustainable democracy. In a contribution to The Washington Post last Friday, Musharraf cited Pakistan’s “uneasy political history, with its centuries-old regional and feudal cleavages” and “violent extremists dedicated to the defeat of democracy” as complexities that stood in the way of building democracy. Not surprisingly, he chose not to mention the role military institutions have played in undermining representative rule. An opportunity has now arisen to desist from such folly. It must not be squandered.
This will depend to a considerable extent on the behaviour of the political parties. It would only be fair to acknowledge that the precedents in this respect leave a great deal to be desired: at almost every stage in the nation’s history, the military penchant for controlling Pakistan’s destiny has been facilitated by the inability of civilian forces to get their act together. This does not mean that the imposition of martial law was ever justified, and it would be disingenuous to discount the army’s role over the decades in fuelling political uncertainty and instability. There can be little question, however, that party-political shenanigans in the 1950s, the 1970s and the 1990s contributed to the process, making it easier for military leaders to pose as national saviours.
Pakistan’s track record in terms of heeding history’s lessons is fairly pathetic, and a break from the past in this respect is absolutely essential at this crucial juncture. There are at least two fronts on which the new government must be prepared to take immediate action: the security situation and economic conditions. Neither of them is easy to tackle, but such issues are rarely irresoluble. In both cases it would obviously be wise to combine short-term measures with longer-term developmental and educational projects. The restoration of an independent judiciary and greater freedom for the media would go some way towards firming up the foundations of democratic institutions - a task that most previous governments have neglected, with dire consequences.
On the external front, among other things, the process of establishing cordial relations with India deserves to be pursued with renewed vigour, while the imbalance in ties with the US needs to be redressed. Meanwhile, the coalition between the two largest parties ought, ideally, to be sustained for years rather than months, and all corrupting temptations must rigorously be resisted.
It would only be realistic to recognize that the sense of springtime may turn out to be a temporarily illusion. However, if the majority of Pakistan’s people and politicians are determined to make it linger, it may well turn out to be a rewarding experience.