Voters in Pakistan delivered a sharp rebuke to President Pervez Musharraf in last Monday’s general elections, handing significant victories to the country's two leading opposition parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of the assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto and Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sahrif.
The massive victory of the PPP was not unexpected because of the sympathy generated by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December last but the landslide victory of the PML-N was astonishing. He was allowed to return home on November 25 last year after eight years in exile.
The nearly complete election tally shows that the Pakistan Peoples Party had won 88 seats; the Pakistan Muslim League-N, 66; and the pro-Musharraf PML-Q, only 38. The two major opposition parties have won at least 154 seats in the 272-member National Assembly while 171 members are required to form a government.
Not surprisingly, the elections are seen as a referendum on President Musharraf’s eight year’s autocratic rule. They are also a repudiation of the Bush administration, which has staunchly backed Mr. Musharraf for more than six years as its best bet in the campaign against the militants in Pakistan. Even as Musharraf’s standing plummeted and the insurgency gained strength, senior Bush administration officials praised him as a valued partner in the effort against terrorism.
The greatest blow for Musharraf came in the strong wave of support in Punjab Province, the country’s most populous, for Nawaz Sharif, who has been a bitter rival since his government was overthrown by Musharraf in a military coup in October1999 and he was arrested and sent into exile. His party captured more than 100 seats in the provincial assembly of Punjab for paving way for his party’s government in the province.
Elections were held in the backdrop of a year-long turmoil. Pakistan has experienced widespread tumult since March last year, when huge protests erupted following Musharraf's decision to fire the chief justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Ahmad Chaudhry and place him and several other jurists under house arrest. In the following months, public frustration grew over increasing insurgent violence, rising consumer prices and corruption. In December, following the assassination of Bhutto, the president's popularity fell to an all-time low.
After more than eight years of autocratic rule, these elections are seen as the beginning of a new democratic era in Pakistan, one of peace and stability, of an independent judiciary, media and real economic growth. In the short term, the result looks to have given Pakistan a much-needed measure of stability as jubilant voters feel that, finally, their voice has been heard. However, new National Assembly will be facing enormous challenges and the challenges become grave in a hung parliament returned by the February 18 elections.
One of the most contentious issues for the PML-N and other parties will be establishing supremacy of the constitution and parliament. The Legal Framework Order enacted by decree in 2002 is now part of the basic law, and it has served to strip the prime minister of the powers which make him the system’s prima donna. Instead, all the powers have been concentrated in the hands of the head of state, the most important of them being Article 58-2b of the constitution, which gives Musharraf the power to dissolve the assembly and sack the prime minister even if he enjoys the House’s confidence. As the Constitution exists today after all those amendments, the prime minister representing the assembly can survive in office only on the president’s goodwill.
The restoration of an independent judiciary is an equally important challenge that the nation faces today. The superior judiciary was removed through the PCO because it was suspected that it might not give a ruling in favor of Musharraf on the question of his eligibility to run for president while he holds the office of Chief of Army Staff. (In October 2007, while in uniform, Musharraf got himself elected from the parliament whose own term expired after one month. He donned off uniform after his re-election as President for five years.)
The elections are considered an opportunity to resolve these complex issues, which are mired in deep political and constitutional controversies. Failure to do so may produce political confrontation that is already shaping up with some of the parties having boycotted the elections. These parties have vowed to continue their struggle until the pre-November three-judiciary is restored, no matter which party or parties form the government.
Nawaz Sharif has taken a hard line against President Musharraf and for the restoration of about 60 superior court judges who were sacked under the extra-constitutional emergency the president had declared on Nov 3 in his now given up capacity as army chief. Soon after his landslide victory, Nawaz Sharif called on the president to resign.
However, Zardari has taken a conciliatory tone. He offered to cooperate with all parties which for sure includes pro-Musharraf PML-Q which was badly mauled in the polls. It was able to capture only 38 seats as it saw 23 of its ministers losing contest. Zardari’s statement has refreshed hopes of reviving the deal with President Musharraf that was clinched by his assassinated wife Benazir Bhutto with the backing of Washington. Before elections, Nawaz Sharif and Zardari had vowed to cooperate in the formation of the future government but the realpolitik may force them to adopt different pathways.
In the election surprises is also the victory of the Awami National Party (ANP) in the sensitive North West Frontier Province (NWFP). It is a staunch nationalist party that was routed by the establishment in 2002 rigged elections. In 2002, the establishment made it sure that ANP President Asfandyar Wali Khan lose to a minor religious leader. In this election, the ANP has emerged as the leading party with 29 seats in the province. It won 10 in the National Assembly.
Though religious parties have been routed in this election but the US will find few friends to support for its backed Pakistan army operations in the NWFP. The ANP is a left-leaning nationalist party. It was against the US-backed Jihad of 1980s in Afghanistan. It is against the current army operations in the Federally Administered Territorial Areas (FATA) and Swat.
American officials will have little choice now but to seek alternative allies from among the new political forces emerging from the vote. While it is difficult to predict how the post-election alliance might address US interests in Pakistan, but it seems certain that it would attempt to project a stronger image of independence than Musharraf has. Pakistanis overwhelmingly feel that America is bullying Pakistan into fighting a war against its own people in the tribal areas.
According to the New York Times the election “results opened a host of new challenges for the Bush administration, which has been criticized in Congress and by Pakistan analysts for relying too heavily on Mr. Musharraf.”