Life is always full of pleasant surprises, the elections in Pakistan proving this yet again.
In spite of holding the massive advantages of a pliant election commission, a muzzled media and a jailed judiciary, (erstwhile) General Pervez Musharraf’s party lost massively in the parliamentary elections held on February 18. Benazir Bhutto’s party won the most seats, with the party of ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif close behind. No single party won a majority, though, forcing these two parties to form a coalition.
I must confess I was taken aback by the results, since I had expected Musharraf’s henchmen to rig the results. Human Rights Watch kept a close tab on the elections and posted an audio recording of Pakistan’s attorney general himself advising a political aspirant that there would be heavy rigging in favor of Musharraf’s party. I guess there’s a limit to the shenanigans you can engage in if the people are so overwhelmingly against you. The other parties are even questioning the 40-odd seats that Musharraf’s party has gotten.
Whither Musharraf? And, more importantly from a U.S. perspective, where will the United States go from here?
Musharraf and his chief backer have been badly burned by the results. Both major parties despise the ex-general. Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari, is not ruling out impeaching him. Musharraf has three options: to retire gently into the good night, to cooperate with parliament in the hope that he will not be impeached, or defy parliament’s writ. Seeing Musharraf’s past stubbornness, I would rule out option number one. Of the remaining two, which course he takes depends on how deeply chastened he is. Unfortunately, self-reflection is not a quality that comes easily to this former commando, and so I foresee unending confrontation in Pakistan between the legislature and the executive.
As for the United States, it is left without a paddle. The Bush Administration has invested possibly as much as $20 billion in a man who it made the linchpin of U.S. policy in the country. Now, the Bush folks should be grateful if the democratic parties want to even talk with the United States, let alone enter into a partnership with it.
Another wonderful part of the result was the resurgence of a party founded by one of my favorite figures in history—Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as the Frontier Gandhi. A close friend of the Mahatma, he founded a movement in the 1920s dedicated to nonviolence and social reform. (I profiled him in the magazine a few years ago.) His party, the Awami National Party, led by his grandson had done badly in the previous elections but has made a huge comeback in the North-West Frontier Province on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Ghaffar Khan’s heirs made a decision a long time ago to foreground him as a Pashtun nationalist rather than as a remarkable advocate of nonviolence and social change, but I would still take that any day over retrograde clerics, the other strong political force in the area.
It was a good week for democracy. The fundamentalists were defeated, the general was humiliated, and the will of the people was clearly expressed. Even the imprisoned justices and lawyers may be soon released. As a Pakistani friend of mine e-mailed me joyously, the people of Pakistan said “a big NO to the mullahs and the military!!” The question now is: What next?