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The loser

Tuesday 26 February 2008, by JOHN CHERIAN

The election results are interpreted as a vote against President Musharraf and his “war on terror” on behalf of the U.S.

The U.S. has indicated that at least for the time being he is indispensable.

THE decision of the three major winners in the February 18 elections to come together and form a government could be the final political punch that could unravel the presidency of Pervez Musharraf. With the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, or PML(N), and the Awami National Party (ANP) emerging as the main beneficiaries, there was already a popular perception in Pakistan that Musharraf had become a lame-duck President.

There were some last-minute efforts by the President’s aides to persuade PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari to form a coalition at the Centre and in the States with the former ruling party, the PML(Q), which had somehow managed to retain the third position.

The Americans have indicated that at least for the time being Musharraf is indispensable for them in the “war against terror”. It is not a secret that Washington continues to be suspicious about the agenda of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In a last ditch attempt to stave off a PPP-PML(N)-led grand coalition, Musharraf’s close aides tried to convince Zardari about the dangers of cohabiting with Sharif and his party. The PPP and the PML have been traditional rivals. Zardari also had a closed-door meeting with the American Ambassador in Islamabad at the latter’s residence. But there was no way that Zardari and the PPP leadership could ignore the popular mood. The election results were viewed as a vote against Musharraf and his kowtowing to the Americans on the “war on terror”.

Major-General Rashid Qureshi, President Musharraf’s media adviser and spokesman, told Frontline just days before the announcement about the formation of a coalition government that Sharif was “confusing issues” by trying to project the election results as “a referendum on the President”. He said that Presidents did not change on the basis of national elections. He revealed that the PPP leadership had indicated that it could have a working relationship with the President.

Sharif’s major campaign plank was that the President should resign for riding roughshod over the Constitution and the judiciary. He reiterated this demand even more vociferously after the election results were announced, while the PPP leadership chose to remain silent. On this issue, the leaders of Pakistani civil society, including some personalities owing allegiance to the PPP, have been supporting the PML(N) leader. Many observers of the Pakistani scene are in fact of the view that it was Sharif’s uncompromising stance that helped his party stage a remarkable comeback on the national stage.

Meanwhile, Musharraf’s dwindling band of supporters are claiming credit for a “fair and free” election and the restoration of meaningful democracy. Qureshi said that this was the first time that Pakistan ever had genuinely free elections. “Things have gone according to Musharraf’s plans in the last five years. Now there is a fully democratic dispensation in Pakistan,” said Qureshi. He emphasised that it was the elected Prime Minister who would be running the country. The President would only interfere if there was a “complete breakdown” in the government. The present Constitution gives the right to the President to dissolve the government.

The Opposition, Sharif’s party in particular, has been demanding the restoration of the old Constitution and the removal of the National Security Council (NSC), in which the Army is represented. All important issues are supposed to be first thrashed out in the NSC before they are implemented.

Qureshi said that the NSC’s job was to act as a safety valve and ensure that decisions were taken on the basis of consensus. He pointed out that the military had been an important factor in Pakistan’s politics for the last 60 years. He said the incoming government should give the President the responsibility to conduct the ongoing “war on terror”.

“Musharraf’s experience in international affairs should be used. Only he understands the problems Pakistan faces. The West realises he is the best option for Pakistan,” he claimed. Qureshi expressed his confidence that the PPP would not take the “drastic step” of asking the President to step down. He also dismissed talk of the Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, distancing himself from Musharraf. “The Army would voice its different opinion if it had one.”

Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, secretary-general of the PML(Q), continues to stand by the beleaguered President though he acknowledges the blunders committed by the government in recent years. He listed the judicial issue, the confrontation with the media, the shortage of wheat and the power outages as factors that led to the rout of the ruling party. Mushahid said that the first four years of his party’s stint at the helm were good for the country. He is of the view that it was the lawyers’ agitation which started in late 2007 that gave the momentum to the Opposition parties. “The traditional political parties are not leading. They are joining the lawyer’s bandwagon.” (Aitzaz Ahsan, the PPP leader who is leading the lawyers’ movement for the reinstatement of the dismissed judges, is arguably the most popular politician in Pakistan today.)

Mushahid said that after the recent developments, civil society and the judiciary had become additional pillars of government. Mushahid, who started his career as a radical leftist and served as Information Minister under Sharif, said that the country was experiencing “a political transformation”. At the same time, politics continued to be “personality-oriented”. Benazir Bhutto’s death, he said, was the “turning point as well as a chastening point” for Pakistan. He pointed out that this was the first time that there was a “peaceful transition in Pakistan”.

Mushahid acknowledged that there was tremendous resentment about the close U.S.-Pakistan alliance in the war on terror. More than a thousand Pakistan Army personnel have been killed in anti-insurgency operations and suicide bombing. “Gen. Kiyani wants to extricate the military from politics,” he said.

He said that there was an urgent need to redefine the role of the Army. “Now the enemy is terror and extremism. The Army has to focus on low-intensity warfare.” Until now, the Pakistani armed forces were geared to face the Indian Army, in conventional warfare. Interestingly, for the first time, Kashmir was not an issue in the elections. The Pakistani nation was preoccupied with bigger issues that had the potential to impact adversely on its unity.


Anti-Musharraf lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan at a protest in Lahore.

Mushahid said that Pakistan never followed American diktats fully. The Pakistani establishment, he observed, used its closeness to Washington to achieve its own policy goals. “During the American-supported jehad in Pakistan, we built the bomb. Now we have gone through with the Iran pipeline deal”.

Mushahid said his party was reconciled to being in the Opposition for the next five years. He echoed the widely held view that the sympathy votes following the assassination of Benazir went to Sharif and not to Zardari. He does not visualise too much political turbulence in the immediate future. “Zardari respects power. He won’t rock the boat,” he said. Maybe to guarantee just that, the Pakistani authorities are vigorously pursuing the corruption case against him in a Swiss court, despite the PPP emerging as the single biggest party.

Mushahid is confident that President Musharraf will complete his term in office. “Musharraf is a master of the U-turn. Remember the hawk of Kargil became the dove of Agra. The father of jehadis became the godfather of enlightened moderation.” The General, he said, was like a cat with nine lives. However, he admitted, that Musharraf would be in a spot of bother if the “grand coalition” formed the government.

Another politician, Imran Khan, who chose to boycott the elections, has a slightly different take on the situation. Imran was part of the All Party Democratic Movement (APDM), which called on citizens to stay away from the polls. The APDM consisted of parties ranging from the religious Right to the communist Left. Imran said that it was a sense of solidarity with the lawyers and the judiciary that motivated him to stay away from the electoral fray though, he says with a tinge of regret, that opinion polls had shown growing popular support for his party. Imran said that the Opposition had scored “a great victory, despite the rigging. The Bush dream team is out”.

Most of the international observer groups had said that there were serious irregularities in the elections. Imran said that the rigging this time was the most widespread since the 2002 elections, which he described as the worst so far. This time, according to Imran, there was a lot of pre-poll rigging, in which the police and the district nazims (heads) played a big role. “If Benazir was not assassinated – Pervaiz Elahi would have become the Prime Minister. In her death Benazir destroyed Musharraf.”

This correspondent met Elahi just before the elections. He was exuding confidence, claiming that the ruling party would get a majority on its own. “The PPP has faced two tragedies one after the other. The first was the assassination of Benazir. The second was the selection of Zardari to replace her as the leader of PPP,” said Elahi. Both he and his cousin, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the PML(Q) strongman, as it turned out, were defeated.

Imran characterised the vote as “anti-Musharraf and pro-judiciary”. He said the PPP’s “ambiguity towards the judiciary cost it a two-thirds majority in Parliament”. If the elections were truly fair and free, he said, the ruling party would have drawn a blank. On the positive side, Imran noted that the religious parties had been voted out. “Only when dictators are around does extremism thrive.”

Imran wants Musharraf to retire immediately. “Musharraf is like Hitler. He appointed his judges. The President has no authority. His continuing is not feasible for democracy.” Imran is also critical of Pakistan’s role as America’s ally in the war on terror. “Our own soldiers are killing civilians and the President calls it collateral damage.” He said he “felt embarrassed being a Pakistani after the massacre in the Red Mosque in Islamabad last year. Benazir supported the slaughter”.

The incident continues to be an emotive issue and was a factor in votes going against the PPP in Punjab and other areas. Many prominent Pakistanis are of the view that Benazir’s assassination was linked to the incident.

Referring to the fact that there was no India-bashing by politicians during the elections, Imran said that Pakistanis had come to the conclusion that “India was not an enemy”.

Hamid Gul, former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief and a bete noire of both the Indian and Pakistani security establishments, when he met this correspondent just before the elections, said that the solution to the political impasse in Pakistan was the restoration of the pre-October 12, 1999 Constitution. Gul these days is close to the Islamists and is of the view that elections would only foster more chaos. An ardent supporter of the Taliban, he said the group was offering an alternative system of democracy in Afghanistan. He accuses the U.S. of encouraging Musharraf to crack down on the judiciary. “America does not want an independent judiciary because of the hundreds of missing Pakistani prisoners who have been tortured in American secret prisons all over the world,” he said. The sacked judges had asked the government to furnish information about the whereabouts of the missing Pakistani citizens.

Gul claimed that Benazir had veered round to an anti-American position in the weeks preceding her killing. According to Gul, Benazir had personally conveyed this message to him just days before her assassination. “She had thrown away the yoke of the American administration. The PPP is inherently anti-imperialist and Zardari cannot neutralise this,” Gul said. He said that the new Army chief was also sending “positive vibes”.

Gen. Kiyani, he said, was bending over backwards to accommodate the civilians. The Americans, he said, may wish to replace one General with another. But Gul pointed out that Kiyani’s last posting was as the ISI chief. The ISI, he said, was not among the most pro-U.S. wings of the Pakistani establishment. The Pakistani establishment, Gul said, was aware that one of the priorities of the U.S. was to gain joint custody of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and impose its “doctrine of limited sovereignty on the country”.

The former army chief, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, in conversation with Frontline, said Benazir had given “a great gift of democracy” to the country. Beg, who had taken over as Army chief following President Zia-ul-Haq’s death, said that Benazir would have otherwise lost the elections. According to Beg, her party was trailing at the polls in mid-December. “After her death, Beg said, Benazir facilitated the creation of a national utility government.” The Army, according to Beg, has distanced itself from Musharraf. “The people were abusing the Army. It had never happened before.”

Beg noted that Kiyani had withdrawn all Army officers from civilian posts and talked about the importance of public support for the Army. He also said that both military intelligence and the ISI had kept away from the election scene this time. Comparing himself with Musharraf, Beg noted that he restored civilian rule within three hours after the death of Zia.

According to the General, before her death Benazir had confided in many people about the American plans to give a permanent political role to the armed forces. Benazir had realised that it would be difficult to sell the plan to the Pakistani people. “The recent developments have shown that the American game plan has failed. Civil society has emerged and it will not be dictated to by the Americans,” said Beg.

Article published in Frontline (Delhi)