Pakistan’s discredited election transfers power to discredited and corrupt politicians

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If there is any truth in the saying that people vote against, rather than for, someone or something, then the results of the general elections in Pakistan on February 18 are a stinging rebuke to General Pervez Musharraf and the party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e Azam faction, PML-Q), that he created as a civilian façade for his brutal rule. They are also a complete rejection of US policies in the region that Musharraf has pursued since 2001 at the cost of Pakistan’s interests. The sad irony is, of course, that the opposition parties that benefited from the popular anger with Musharraf and the US are likely to prove just as open to Western manipulation as Musharraf has been, while having no more capacity to govern Pakistan effectively or honestly.

Anyone linked with Musharraf and, therefore, viewed as an American puppet was rejected. This was clearly evident in the manner in which most stalwarts of the PML-Q, including the party chief, Chaudhry Shujaat Husain, and the loud-mouthed Shaikh Rashid Ahmed, together with eighteen other ministers, were rejected. Others linked to Musharraf–Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the Jami’atul Ulama-e Islam (JUI-F) party, for instance–were similarly humiliated. In the convoluted politics of Pakistan, politicians stand in several constituencies simultaneously to ensure success in at least one of them. This is what happened to the maulana, godfather of the Taliban, who lost his seat in his traditional stronghold of Dera Ismail Khan. He barely managed to squeeze through in Bannu. The only pro-Musharraf party that retained its vote bank was the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a fascist outfit that makes even the mafia look benign. The reason is clear: the MQM benefited from the absence of the Jama’at-e Islami, which boycotted the general election. Further, the MQM deals ruthlessly with those that refuse to toe its line, but its support is confined to only two urban centres: Karachi and Hyderabad. Outside these two cities, the MQM has no standing. Thus, strictly speaking, it is not even a provincial party, much less one with any national standing.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the assassinated former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, obtained the largest number of seats in the National Assembly, followed closely by the Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Neither, however, has enough seats to form the government alone. Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif have agreed to work together. They have also shown a willingness to join hands with the Awami National Party (ANP), which has the most seats in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and a respectable number in Baluchistan.

As politicians jockey for position, pressure is mounting on Musharraf to quit. Nawaz Sharif has been the most vocal in demanding his departure, pointing out that Musharraf had said before the elections that if the people did not want him he would go. “The people have spoken. The sooner he leaves, the better,” said Sharif, referring to the humiliation suffered by the pro-Musharraf party. Zardari is playing coy; he has not demanded Musharraf’s departure in such unequivocal terms. Even Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the PPP’s favourite candidate to become the prime minister, has called Musharraf’s resignation premature. There is clearly much more going on behind the scenes beside the public pronouncements.

There has been intense diplomatic activity in Islamabad, with the US ambassador, Anne Paterson, acting as busy bee, meeting Zardari and Sharif twice each. She has also met Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the ANP. British, French, Chinese and Indian envoys, among others, have also been making the rounds to meet party-leaders. These meetings are not merely to congratulate the winners. The Americans’ plans for Pakistan have been shredded twice in less than two months. They had arranged a marriage of convenience between Musharraf and Benazir, but that was blown to pieces on December 27 when Benazir was assassinated. The US then hoped that the PML-Q would win enough seats to form the next government in coalition with other like-minded parties to keep Musharraf in power. The PML-Q has been humiliated, and if it had not been for pre-poll rigging it would not have obtained even the 38 seats it has secured in the national assembly. Adding the reserved seats for minorities and women that are apportioned according to each party’s percentage of the vote, the PML-Q’s total stands at 42 from a grand total of 342 seats in the national assembly. Thus Musharraf’s party has been left in tatters. The anticipated massive poll-rigging was prevented when General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, the army chief, ordered the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) not to interfere in the electoral process. Despite government claims that the turn-out was 40 percent of the electorate, most independent observers say that it was around 20 percent. Empty, echoing polling stations suggested the accuracy of the lower figure.

In typical Pakistani style, many PML-Q members of parliament are already scurrying to join the PPP and PML-N. It is interesting to note that Nawaz Sharif announced a day after the elections that he would welcome those who wish to return to the fold. Integrity and ideological commitment are not allowed to intrude in such matters. In Pakistan, these turncoats are called lotas, an apt description since it refers to the water can that is used to wash oneself after using the washroom. There are also 33 independent members in the assembly, forming the fourth largest block. Nisar Ali Khan, a senior member of Sharif’s party, has said that at least eighteen MNAs from the PML-Q and perhaps an equal number of independents have expressed the desire to join the PML-N. Whether such large numbers will really flock to the PML-N is debatable; many would prefer to join the PPP, which is likely to form the government at the centre, but because the PML-N controls Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, it is also an attractive destination for many lotas.

It is, however, the US’s attitude that is most revealing. It not only shows the US’s disdain for people’s wishes but also the manner in which it interferes in Pakistan’s internal affairs. Even a secular Karachi daily, Dawn, was forced to say, in an editorial on February 24, that the US’s and other Western powers’ pressure tactics used against Pakistani politicians are a “grave folly”. Two days after the February 18 polls, Zardari drove to the US embassy to meet Paterson. Why would the leader of a party holding the largest number of seats in Pakistan’s parliament feel obliged to visit the US ambassador, instead of the ambassador calling on him? Paterson met both Zardari and Sharif twice: obviously it was not to congratulate them twice; Paterson was exerting pressure on both to accommodate Musharraf, whom the Americans are still trying to keep in power. US president George Bush took time off from his African trip to phone Musharraf after the poll results became known.

It is not difficult to work out why the Americans are so keen to support Musharraf. On January 9 he secretly signed a new agreement to allow unmanned US predator-planes to fly from Pakistani airbases to attack suspected Taliban in Afghanistan as well as tribesmen in Pakistan. While Pakistani politicians are not going to oppose the US, they may be forced to withhold support temporarily because of its political repercussions. Unlike military dictators, civilians have to take account of public sentiment. The New York Times also revealed on February 22 that Musharraf had allowed a secret CIA base to operate in Pakistan for several years without either government acknowledging its existence, in order to not “embarrass” the general.

Some PML-Q members have claimed that the Americans have told them to join hands with the MQM and the People’s Party to form the next government. Did Paterson say as much to Zardari? If so, it would seem that Zardari has not obliged, not because he is a man of principles but because current political realities dictate otherwise. But Zardari has to walk a fine line; the Musharraf regime resumed legal proceedings against him in a Swiss court on February 20, clearly intended as a signal to Zardari that he must soften his stand against Musharraf. Corruption charges against Benazir were dropped after Musharraf’s deal with her last October, in return for her cooperation; charges against Zardari were only suspended. The Musharraf-Benazir deal, however, was challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan before Musharraf declared a state of emergency on November 3 and “dismissed” all the judges. Sixty judges still remain under house arrest and are prevented from communicating with the outside world.

The judges’ reinstatement is one of the issues that will probably preoccupy parliament in its first few days when it meets in early March. Another will be the raft of amendments Musharraf inserted into the constitution by means of presidential decrees that granted him enormous powers. Since most opposition parties consider his election as president from the previous assemblies during their dying days as illegitimate, this matter will also probably be prominent on the agenda. The real problems confronting ordinary people–the lack of essential commodities such as flour and cooking oil, as well as gas and electricity, and the rocketing prices of fuel–are not likely to receive much attention. Because those in the assemblies do not face such problems, they are not considered important. Nor are they going to demand the withdrawal of US troops from Pakistan’s tribal region or the cessation of the murderous campaign being waged by the Pakistan army against its own people at the behest of the US.

The post-election euphoria will be short-lived because little is likely to change for ordinary Pakistanis. The leading figures of the two winning parties have a poor track-record of governance, in addition to the massive corruption they were involved in when in power. No one considers it likely that they will change their ways now. What the elections have shown once again is that the system in Pakistan is incapable of solving any of the country’s problems. The only future that awaits the people is endless misery, total subservience to the US, and policies chosen to serve the interests of the elites. There is no intention to serve the interests of the people.

That is the task of the Islamic movement, but unfortunately there is at present no Islamic movement in Pakistan to speak of. Political parties operating under the Islamic label are no better than parties espousing secular or leftist slogans. These are just that: slogans. The biggest vote against the system is that it keeps throwing up the same tired old faces, who then proceed to compound the country’s problems.

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