Hassan Abbas, Guardian, February 19, 2008: http://www.guardian.co.uk
The verdict is clear. Pakistan has shown the door to the mullahs and delivered a stern warning to Musharraf. Pakistan has backed the opposition to Musharraf's despotic handling of the judiciary, his high-handedness against independent media and his political cronyism. As a result, Musharraf's future looks bleak, while Pakistan gets a fighting chance to puts its house in order.
The drift of the voters is not unexpected, but few trusted the state machinery to conduct largely fair elections. Pre-poll rigging was in full swing till the end, caretakers' partiality towards pro-Musharraf parties was obvious and the Election Commission's neutrality was in doubt. While a string of suicide bombings haunted voters, ordinary Pakistanis have shown that they still believe in democracy. Voter turnout was low but the message of the electorate is clear.
Musharraf's hopes for a hung parliament that would have given him a chance to continue to manipulate the political scene have been proved wrong. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), though far short of a simple majority, has emerged as the largest political party. A sympathy vote in the wake of Benazir Bhutto's assassination only had a moderate impact, though her death certainly dealt a fatal blow to the prospects of the pro-Musharraf Muslim League (PML-Q) playing any role in government. Her own Sindh province, however, paid due tribute to her by giving a majority to PPP in the provincial assembly.
The Muslim League faction led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif received the second highest number of votes in the national assembly and the highest number of seats in the Punjab assembly, a reward for taking a popular and laudable stand in favour of the deposed judges and constitutionalism. Sharif will have to stick to this agenda, however, if he wants to remain relevant to Pakistan in the future. Contrary to many western fears, this faction of the Muslim League is not overly conservative or Islamist, and has moved towards the centre in recent years.
The most significant victory of all was that won by the secular and Pashtun nationalist party, the Awami National Party (ANP) in the volatile North-West Frontier Province. The religious alliance MMA stands routed in the province which emerged as its heartland in the 2002 elections. Its poor governance record, flirting with Musharraf and significant internal divisions led to its downfall. Just as significant is the ANP's rise.
This is a resounding response to the spate of suicide bombings and politics of violence. For instance, in Swat, which was in the eye of the Islamist militancy storm recently, the ANP won comprehensively, establishing that ordinary Pashtuns are not supportive of extremist forces.
One other factor worth taking into account is the success of women candidates in 12 national and provincial constituencies. There are separate women's seats allocated in all legislatures to be filled through indirect vote, but in many important urban as well as rural districts, major parties fielded women candidates. Most of them won - a healthy trend in a country where in some rural areas women were stopped from voting by their male "guardians".
Despite all these positive trends, however, Pakistan's problems are far from being over. It is going to be an uphill task to form a stable, focused and accountable government dedicated to the wellbeing of the people. Developing a consensus among coalition parties (most likely, PPP, PML-Nawaz, and ANP) in the centre and then sticking to it will be a challenge in itself. In a country where palace intrigues have historically started fermenting within months of a new administration taking office (mostly orchestrated by intelligence services), the early period will be the most challengng of all. Religious extremism can also raise its ugly head at any time, as the suicide bombers and extremists are not going to change their worldview just because liberal and progressive forces did well in the elections.
As for Musharraf, he is living in a fool's paradise if he thinks he is going to be a father figure to the next prime minister of Pakistan. The new government will be under tremendous public pressure to bring back the deposed judges, and that could sound a death knell for the Musharraf presidency. For the army, which is distancing itself from Musharraf already, institutional interests, saving prestige and influence, will be more important than rescuing a president who continues to shoot himself in the foot. The west in general - and Britain and the US in particular - must show patience while democratic forces settle; at least as much patience as they showed with military dictators. This is the very least that the people of Pakistan earned yesterday.