Beyond Musharraf

Pakistan has never voted a military ruler out of office. That could change following Monday’s parliamentary elections. Though President Pervez Musharraf was not on the ballot, the election was about his fate.

The people voted overwhelmingly against Mr. Musharraf. Even though the election was held under rules that favored his political allies, almost every candidate who served in his government lost. So did all major leaders of the Kings Party that Mr. Musharraf cobbled together with the help of his security services soon after taking power in a 1999 military coup. The Islamists, who Mr. Musharraf used as bogeymen to garner Western support, were trounced. This is good news for everyone worried about an Islamist takeover of the world’s only nuclear-armed, Muslim-majority nation.

The result was a posthumous victory for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. This victory vindicated the sacrifice of every Pakistani who was imprisoned or exiled during eight years of autocratic rule but continued demanding freedom. Bhutto returned to the country seeking its return to democracy, only to be assassinated by terrorists on Dec. 27.

Pakistan’s powerful army, now under the command of Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, is beginning to distance itself from politics. The army’s refusal to side with Mr. Musharraf’s political allies sealed their fate. Now, the army must help put Pakistan back on the constitutional path by undoing the arbitrary constitutional amendments decreed by Mr. Musharraf as army chief a few days before he relinquished his command.

The depth of opposition to Mr. Musharraf, coupled with his tendency to change or break rules to stay in power, had raised serious concerns that Mr. Musharraf would manipulate the election results in favor of his allies. In the end, international pressure, represented by the presence of three prominent U.S. senators — John Kerry (D., Mass.), Joe Biden (D., Del.) and Chuck Hagel (R., Neb.) — on Election Day helped stay Mr. Musharraf’s hand. Mr. Musharraf also seemed to think that tilting the rules in his party’s favor would be enough for victory, and thus fraud on polling day would be unnecessary.

That does not mean, however, that Mr. Musharraf might not still try to manipulate the situation to cling to power. He could try and create rifts between the various opposition parties by negotiating separately with them, and by using his intelligence services to bribe or blackmail individual politicians. Late last year, Mr. Musharraf had himself “elected” president by Pakistan’s outgoing parliament, which was itself chosen through a dubious election in 2002. He then fired 60% of superior court judges to forestall judicial review of the presidential election.

Trying such antics again would be a disastrous mistake. Some members of the Bush administration have repeatedly described Mr. Musharraf as an indispensable ally in the war against terrorism. Economic and military assistance from the U.S. and other Western countries has been crucial for Mr. Musharraf’s political survival thus far, and has probably contributed to his arrogance.

This might be the moment for Mr. Musharraf’s Western backers to help him understand that annulment or alteration of the election results would plunge Pakistan deeper into chaos. Mr. Musharraf should not only abide by the verdict of his people but also recognize that Pakistan — not he — is the crucial ally the world needs to defeat terrorists.

Pakistan faces an al-Qaeda-backed insurgency along its border with Afghanistan, which is spilling over into other parts of the country. Any attempt by Mr. Musharraf to insist on retaining absolute power — rather than allowing opposition leaders Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari to return Pakistan to normal constitutional governance — would only anger the vast majority of Pakistanis who have just voted for moderate, antiterrorist parties. The ensuing chaos could strengthen the violent Islamist insurgents.

Pakistan’s two major opposition parties — the pro-Western, center-left Pakistan Peoples Party now led by Bhutto’s widower Asif Zardari, and the center-right Pakistan Muslim League — together could have a two-thirds majority in the 342-seat National Assembly. Mr. Musharraf’s allies have been virtually wiped out. The opposition can now form a government that is no longer subservient to Mr. Musharraf.

Even if he remains president, Mr. Musharraf will no longer remain the most powerful man in Pakistan. He has said in the past that he would rather step down than face the ignominy of being impeached by the newly elected parliament, which is now possible. The opposition would be well advised to exercise restraint. At the same time, Mr. Musharraf would have to reverse many of his arbitrary decisions in order to qualify for the opposition’s minimal cooperation.

Since 9/11, Mr. Musharraf has marketed himself to the West as the man most capable of saving Pakistan from a radical Islamist takeover. But under his rule Pakistan has become more vulnerable to terrorists than before. Mr. Musharraf’s government has squandered good will through its arbitrary actions against the political opposition and judiciary. Furthermore, only a small sliver of the country’s 160 million people have benefited from the economic achievements of the past eight years.

The recent election campaign was marred by violence, which the government blames on terrorists. But the targets of violence have been the secular opposition parties — the most notable victim being Bhutto, who became an icon of democracy for Pakistanis after her assassination. Opposition politicians justifiably questioned why the terrorists have not attacked pro-Musharraf groups, if he was the one fighting terror.

Mr. Musharraf must now accept the consequence of defeat, and work out an honorable exit or a workable compromise with the opposition. The two parties that have emerged with popular support from this election should get full backing from the international community in restoring democracy to Pakistan. This might prove more effective in combating terrorism than continuing to prop up a discredited and despised dictator.

This article appeared in Wall Street Journal on February 20, 2008