Editorial: The voice of a country
The Guardian; February 20, 2008
For once, the voice of the people of Pakistan has been loud and clear. Pakistan 's ruling party was routed in Monday's election, and with it went the pretence that Pervez Musharraf has the support of his people. All the rigging in the world could not have prevented the resurgence of the two main opposition parties, the Pakistan Peoples party (PPP) of the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N). With about 20 of the 272 parliamentary seats undeclared, Mr Musharraf's last hope was to prevent the two opposition parties from gaining a two-thirds majority, which would leave him vulnerable to impeachment. But the writing was on the wall last night: parliamentary politics have returned with a vengeance, and for the first time in his career the president will have to deal with a parliament he can not easily buy off or control. This alone is a significant step on the path to restoring democratic rule in Pakistan .
The choice for the PPP, which has won at least 80 seats, is stark. There were signs last night that its caretaker leader - Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari - appreciated the importance of the party's next move. It could listen to American entreaties and form a pact with Mr Musharraf's discredited party, the PML-Q. This would form a coalition government that would keep the president in power. But such an arrangement would come at high political cost. It could split the PPP - a party largely held together by the collective memory of its fallen leader - and its support would haemorrhage.
The alternative is to keep faith with the popular vote and form a government of national unity with Mr Sharif. The once unpopular former prime minister has been boosted by this election. He campaigned on the issue of restoring the justices removed from office when a state of emergency was declared on November 3 last year. Mr Sharif wants the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, currently under house arrest, to rule on the eligibility of Mr Musharraf's re-election as president. This would put the clock back to November 2 and undo not only the state of emergency but also Mr Musharraf's later attempts to set some of its darker elements in stone. Whatever the politicians do, lawyers will take to the streets in early March to make similar demands. Last night Mr Zardari said he would try to form a coalition with Mr Sharif. Mr Zardari said his party was not interested in any of those who were part of the last government.
A government of national unity would not last long, but it does not have to. Its function would be limited to carrying out a number of specific tasks: to restore an independent supreme court and election commission, to remove restrictions on the media, to see off Mr Musharraf and to set a date for new elections. There are doubts as to whether a coalition between two parties that detest each other would survive the ousting of their common foe. Mr Sharif, who found shelter in Saudi Arabia in his period of exile, would soon turn to the Islamist parties to which the PPP are opposed. Neither the PPP nor the PML-N would want to play second fiddle, and Mr Sharif is now a powerful man. He controls not only the second-largest party in the national government but also the regional parliament of the Punjab . Mr Sharif and Mr Musharraf have a long and bitter history of removing or attempting to remove each other from power. If a government of national unity were formed it would only be a matter of time before Mr Musharraf would be ousted from office.
The US senators Joseph Biden and John Kerry declared the election credible, but even these foreign-policy liberals have difficulty accepting the loss of Mr Musharraf, such is the importance Washington ascribes to his cooperation in the war against al-Qaida. Yet it is surely time for the US and Britain to plan for life after Pervez Musharraf, because that is the central message of this election.