In 60 years as an independent country, Pakistan has never changed its government through an election. Monday’s election results offer an opportunity for Pakistanis to change that aspect of history. Notwithstanding considerable manipulation beforehand, the people voted overwhelmingly against their highly unpopular ruler Pervez Musharraf. Almost every candidate who served in Musharraf’s government lost. So did all major leaders of the King’s Party Musharraf cobbled together with the help of his security services soon after taking power in a 1999 military coup. The Islamists used by Musharraf as bogeymen to garner western support were also trounced.
Pakistan’s all powerful army, now under the command of General Ashfaq Kiyani, is beginning to distance itself from politics. The army’s refusal to side with Musharraf’s political allies sealed their fate. Now, the army must help Pakistan back on the constitutional path by undoing the arbitrary constitutional amendments decreed by Musharraf as army chief a few days before relinquishing his command.
The depth of opposition to Musharraf, coupled with his tendency to change or break rules to stay in power, had raised serious doubts that Musharraf would manipulate the election results in favour of his allies. In the end, international pressure and a tendency to over-estimate his own ability stayed Musharraf’s hand.
That does not mean, however, that Musharraf would not try now and manipulate the situation again to cling to power. That would be a terrible and disastrous mistake. Some members of the Bush administration have repeatedly described Musharraf as an indispensable ally in the war against terrorism. Economic and military assistance from the United States and other western countries has been crucial for Musharraf’s political survival thus far and has probably contributed to his arrogance and hubris.
This might be the moment for Musharraf’s western backers to help him understand that annulment or alteration of the election results will only plunge Pakistan deeper into chaos.
Pakistan already faces an Al Qaida backed insurgency along its border with Afghanistan, which is spilling over into other parts of the country. Any attempt by Musharraf to insist on retaining absolute power, rather than allowing opposition leaders Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari to return Pakistan to normal constitutional governance would only anger the vast majority of Pakistanis who have just voted for moderate anti-terrorist parties. The ensuing chaos could strengthen the violent insurgents.
Musharraf was not on the ballot on Monday but the election was all about his fate, and that of Pakistan. Late last year, he had himself “elected” president by Pakistan’s outgoing parliament, which was itself chosen through a dubious election in 2002, and fired 60 per cent of superior court judges to forestall judicial review of the presidential election.
Election results show that Pakistan’s two major opposition parties, the pro-western centre-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), together have secured a majority in the 342 seat National Assembly and Musharraf’s allies have been virtually wiped out.
Even if he remains president, he would no longer remain the most powerful man in Pakistan.
Musharraf has said in the past that he would rather step down than face the ignominy of being impeached by the newly elected parliament, which would be possible if the anti-Musharraf parties’ tally of seats in parliament reaches two-thirds of the total membership.
The election 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 Benazir Bhutto who became an icon of democracy for Pakistanis after her assassination on December 27. Opposition politicians justifiably expressed doubts as to why the terrorists have not attacked pro-Musharraf groups given that he is the man supposedly fighting them.
He would have damaged his diminishing credibility further if he had rigged the results and then proceeded to suppress likely protests by force. Losing the election might actually be better for him – and Pakistan. Now he must accept the consequence of defeat and work out an honourable exit.
The two parties that have emerged with popular support from this election should get full support from the international community in restoring democracy to Pakistan, which might prove more effective in combating terrorism than continuing to prop up a discredited and despised dictator.
This article appeared in Gulf News on February 20, 2008