Pakistan coalition promises benefits: Ahmed Rashid's Insights
Ahmed Rashid, guest columnist and writer on Pakistan, sees signs for optimism at the prospect of a coalition government in Pakistan after Monday's elections.
BBC - February 23, 2008
The decision by Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif to work towards a coalition government could prove a major step forward in lifting Pakistan out of its political morass and putting it back on the rails.
The new alliance is between the Pakistan People's Party - the left-of-centre group that won the largest number of parliamentary seats in the 18 February elections and is now led by the widower of assassinated Benazir Bhutto - and the Pakistan Muslim League-N group, led by Mr Sharif which came in a close second.
However, the proposed coalition government could have to face continuing behind the scenes efforts by President Pervez Musharraf and the intelligence agencies to undermine them even before they are allowed to govern.
Mr Musharraf's agents, backed by a section of the Washington establishment, is reported to have been secretly trying to persuade Mr Zardari to go into alliance with the former ruling party - the Pakistan Muslim League-Q group.
The PML-Q has been decimated in the elections - 23 ministers lost their seats and today it is leaderless, visionless and without an agenda - except to continue supporting Mr Musharraf.
The proposed new coalition could prove hugely positive for Pakistan's four provinces.
In the North Western Frontier Province that has been torn apart by civil war, the majority of seats have been won by a PPP ally, the Awami National Party (ANP).
The ANP has perhaps some of the most seasoned and battle-hardened politicians in the country - a pedigree that goes back to the 1930s.
It has tried, despite blockages put up by Mr Musharraf, to foster a more modern and moderate image of Pashtun nationalism than the one put up by the Pakistani Taleban and al-Qaeda. Now it will have every chance of success.
In Sindh province that has previously been torn apart by the bloodshed perpetrated by the Sindhis represented by the PPP and the Urdu speaking Mohajirs represented by the MQM, there is now an offer by Mr Zardari for both parties to form a coalition government.
That would be hugely welcomed by the people of Karachi and other urban centres in the province who have often borne the brunt of past violence.
In Balochistan, Mr Zardari has promised to talk to the Baloch nationalist leaders, all of whom boycotted the elections. The nationalists and separatists are leading a guerrilla war in the province against the army and Mr Musharraf refused to hold any dialogue with them. So far they have not responded to Mr Zardari's offer.
Punjab, the country's largest and most important province would be most likely ruled by Mr Sharif's PML-N because it has the largest number of seats in its assembly. But if there is co-operation at the national level, there is unlikely to be any major rift between the PPP and the PML-N as there was in the late 1980s, when one rival party ruled the centre and the other ruled Punjab.
So for the first in more than a decade the country could be ruled collectively by parties who have separate strengths in each province and who agree on a minimum agenda to fight terrorism, reduce inflation, get the army out of politics and strengthen civilian institutions like the judiciary.
Mr Sharif had been demanding an immediate reinstatement of those judges sacked and jailed by Mr Musharraf. But he seems to have watered down his appeals in the light of advice from Mr Zardari, who perhaps has the same goals but wants to go about it more slowly.
Mr Zardari does not immediately want to annoy the army and those around Mr Musharraf. Nor has Mr Zardari endorsed Mr Sharif's earlier call to impeach Mr Musharraf. That too is likely to be put on the backburner.
What is likely to emerge is that Mr Musharraf himself will be nudged backwards into a much weaker role as new army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani forms a new relationship with the country's civilian leadership and assures them that the army will not be used to undermine them.
That would cut away Mr Musharraf's powers and his chances of continuing to dominate the political spectrum.
All this may come as a blow to President George W Bush who appears to trust no Pakistani in office except for Mr Musharraf.
However there are now signs of a new school of thought brewing in the state and defence departments that goes against Mr Bush's views, which are heavily influenced by Vice President Dick Cheney.
The State Department under Condoleezza Rice has not dared to even discuss a new Pakistan policy in the past, because of fears of angering the White House. Now it seems just such a process is underway, following the massive defeats of Mr Musharraf's supporters at the polls.
Washington should also consider the degree to which the new government is likely to be strongly welcomed in the region.
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan will be hoping to see a real crackdown on the Taleban leadership that have been given sanctuary in Pakistan and he knows and has a good relationship with many of the new leaders in the PPP, the ANP and the PML-N.
India will be hoping to see greater progress in confidence-building measures between the two states that could help start a dialogue on resolving the Kashmir dispute.
Iran will be less apprehensive that Pakistan may do a deal under the table with the Americans to help subvert Iran.
Russia, China and the five Central Asian states are likely to support the new process in the hope that it will bring stability and end the army's on-off support for Islamic militancy which has allowed Islamic militants from their countries to set up shop in Pakistan's tribal areas.
There is plenty of reason to argue that Pakistan has benefited hugely from the elections.
Much will now depend on how willing Mr Musharraf is to accept defeat gracefully.
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist based in Lahore. He is the author of three books including Taliban and, most recently, Jihad. He has covered Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for the past 25 years.