Kiran Omar


February 18, 2008 will go down as a remarkable day in the annals of Pakistan’s history. The peaceful general election has closed the door on that tumultuous chapter and opens a new one of stability, prosperity and economic growth. The Pakistani people have much to celebrate. A new level of political maturity and awareness seems to be taking root and growing in Pakistani public life.

February 18 2008 will go down as a remarkable day in the annals of Pakistan’s history. The brief span of sixty years has seen three major and one minor war with neighboring India; three military coups that toppled democratically elected governments and an alarming growth of violence and militant extremism.


The February 18 general election, it is hoped, has closed the door on that tumultuous chapter and opens a new one of stability, prosperity and economic growth. The Pakistani people have much to celebrate and to be proud of indeed. Contrary to popular predictions, both at home and abroad, the elections were largely fair and transparent. Widespread chaos, violence and unrest were absent, features that had always marked the previous elections. This change was partially due to heightened security measures in place by the caretaker government, and partly due to discipline demonstrated by voters.


A new level of political maturity and awareness seems to be taking root and growing in Pakistani public life. There is a defiant rejection of the status quo and an unwillingness to remain silent in the face of deteriorating conditions. The rapid escalation in prices, crumbling infrastructure and the drastically reduced quality of life has unleashed backlash against the Musharraf government and its supporters. Many interesting and new aspects have emerged from this electoral process.


The February Election was a clear and unequivocal repudiation of the Pakistan Muslim League – Q, or the “king’s party”. The landslide sweep that PML-Q was expecting and predicting simply did not materialize. The positive steps taken and implemented by the Musharraf government were ignored in the face of the current situation faced by a huge majority of Pakistanis in their daily lives. There is a country-wide scarcity of flour, sugar and other essentials; prices are spiraling unchecked on a daily basis. There is acute shortage of electricity both in the industrial and private sector; lengthy and constant power outages have sorely tried the patience and endurance of both urban and rural populations; disruptions of the supply of natural gas, of which there is abundance, for domestic and industrial usage, especially during the winter months, have further exacerbated the misery. More than anything, the rise and spread of random violence and armed militancy, a new and dangerous phenomenon hitherto little known or experienced in Pakistan, has brought out the anger and frustration of the public. This new culture of violence may not be directly a product of the Musharraf government and probably is a festering problem that has been inherited along with other such problems, nevertheless these hens came to roost during the recent years. The public has perceived that the Musharraf government was unable or unwilling to address these problems. A large portion of the vote against the PML-Q, was a expression of this frustration.


The arbitrary sacking of the Supreme Court and high court judges and the suspension [and later dismissal] of the Chief Justice of Pakistan was a cause that was taken up by people across the nation. It ceased to be simply an issue that touched and angered the educated, urban middle-class. This solidarity with this issue was clearly reflected in the many independent pre-election polls. The message that Pakistanis wished to convey to the government was that they did care about a free and impartial judiciary; a justice system that was independent and strong and that could even give rulings that may be contrary to government policies but extended protection to the everyday citizen. Pakistanis fully understand the importance of a free judiciary and its impact on their lives and the protection of their rights as citizens. This is part of the evolving political awareness and maturity that is taking root irrespective of social or economic class.


The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the leader of Pakistan’s largest political party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) on 27 December, shocked and angered the nation. Even those who were not sympathetic to the PPP were angry about this brutal act. Pakistan has had a long and bloodied history of political assassinations beginning with the killing of the first Prime Minister, Liaqat Ali Khan, and includes among others, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father, founder of the PPP and a democratically elected Prime Minister. Ms. Bhutto had returned to Pakistan after 8 years in self-exile, living in London then Dubai. She returned after a US-brokered deal with the Musharraf government to attempt to bring about a restoration of democracy. The electoral success of the PPP may have some element of the sympathy vote, but during her last days, Ms. Bhutto had campaigned vociferously for the restoration of democracy, reduction and stemming of poverty growth and firmly tackling the problems of violence and extremism.  However, the PPP has not managed to achieve the landslide that it was projecting. This is largely due to the fact that the PPP has in the recent past enjoyed two terms in power under Ms. Bhutto herself. In both terms in office, one longer than the other, her party failed to implement any substantial long term reforms that could alleviate the socio-economic problems faced by the country. Her government was dismissed under a cloud of corruption charges and large-scale misappropriation of public funds.  Her widower Mr. Asif Ali Zardari now co-chairs the PPP along with his 19 year old old Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.


The distribution of the vote is an interesting reflection of the changed political picture today.


The PPP has had to share its traditional stronghold of the province of Sindh with the Mutahida Qaumi Mahaz (MQM), a largely urban-based, home-grown student political movement that evolved into a localised party. This party is a relatively new addition to the pantheon of political parties in Pakistan and has  striven to represent the mainly Urdu-speaking population that were “Muhajirs” — the immigrants (and now their progeny) who migrated to areas that became Pakistan, when India gained freedom in 1947, and had settled mostly in Karachi and its environs. Recently the MQM has replaced “Muhajir” from its name and adopted the word  “Muttahida” or United, to foster a wider, national appeal.  In the Sindh, the PPP secured 65 seats, from mostly the rural areas, in the Provincial Assembly, the MQM secured 38 seats,  the PML-Q were denied even a single seat.


In Sindh, the PPP may form a coalition government with the MQM, with which it has had an on-off relationship. In the Punjab, the province where the PML-Q expected to make a clean sweep, victory eluded them and the PML-N, a party headed by another former prime minister Mr. Nawaz Sharif galloped home bagging 101 seats. The PPP secured 78 seats and an interesting balancing group of independents have emerged by capturing 35 seats. Many back-room deals are already in the making to woo this group. In the Punjab, a coalition government will be formed by the PML-N sharing power with the PPP.


The major political parties in Baluchistan province, largely boycotted the elections so the showing was weak and fragmented. The PPP captured 7 seats, the PML-Q managed to secure 17 seats and again a small group of independents with 10 seats stands ready to bargain.


The most interesting upset was in the violence ridden North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) – a 5-party coalition – held the majority for the last 5 years. This was basically an alliance of several smaller parties that had united to enforce the implementation of Shari’a laws in that province. After allowing the MMA, five years to try to bring much sought after socio-economic relief, the electorate voted to return the province to more moderate parties.


In this instance it is the Awami National Party (ANP) headed by Mr. Asfandyar Wali has made a comeback in the province and also to the political stage after a hiatus of several years. The ANP leads with a comfortable majority of 32 seats in the provincial assembly and 10 seats in the National assembly.


The people have cast a clear vote against the escalating violence that has almost wrenched the province away from the rest of the country.  This vote also proves that contrary to popular belief, the province is not determined to move en mass towards a more militant and extremist interpretation of Islam. The immediate and urgent task facing the ANP is to steer the region away from its newly acquired culture of violence, broker peace with the neighboring semi-autonomous areas bordering Afghanistan and stem the flow of armed insurgents from filtering into NWFP from Afghanistan.


The Pakistan Muslim League -N (PML-N) has come with clear objectives, both long and in the short-term. It has continuously stated that it is committed to the restoration of the judiciary to its pre- 3 November status; re-instate the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and ensure a strong and independent justice system.


The PPP has not been as clear on its stand on the issue of the restoration of the judiciary to its pre-3 November status. The perception is that since Mr. Zardari has corruption cases pending against him before the Supreme Court, so it may not be in his interest to expedite the restoration of the judiciary, particularly of the deposed Chief Justice Mr. Iftikhar Chaudhry.


The PPP has not come out with naming a candidate for the Prime Minister who will head this envisaged coalition government. There is speculation of some internal disharmony within the party on Mr. Zardari’s ability to lead the party. The issue of the restoration of the judges will remain an important factor: a powerful section in the party led by Aitizaz Ahsan – who headed the campaign for the restoration of the chief justice – strongly favors immediate action in favor of the restoration. The coming time will clarify whether it is going to be a party led by one personality or by a panel of senior party officials, as was announced during the early days of the campaign.


A positive aspect of the electoral process has been the systematic disengagement of the army from public space. Upon taking charge of office, the new Chief of Army Staff, General Kiyani almost immediately announced the withdrawal of all military personnel appointed to public institutions and offices. He also vowed to restrict the army’s role to maintaining law and order during the elections themselves. These promises have been fulfilled and it is viewed favorably across the country. The army, especially its Intelligence Branch has been, over the years, increasingly visible and active in the political arena. The civilian government has not able to exert control over the ISI (Inter Service Intelligence), as should be its mandate.


The future governments must ensure that this trend of disengagement of the army continues. One concrete measure would be a review of the allocation of resources to the military. A large proportion of Western assistance to Pakistan has been towards strengthening the army, especially during the post 9/11 years where Pakistan was positioned as a front-line state in the US-led “War on Terror”. This assistance must change and be deflected towards the strengthening of infrastructure and democratic institutions. The victorious parties are already voicing their views on a new dynamic of tackling the “war on terror” and are looking at different methodologies to address the issues of extremism and armed insurgence. There is a view that is gathering strength that the time may be on hand to engage in dialogue with the various factions to foster and broker a mutually agreeable and lasting peace.


Any reduction of the army’s influence cannot be successful without reducing the highly charged atmosphere of tension with India. That is the main reason that Pakistan continues to expand and strengthen its military. A lasting resolution to the Kashmir and other issues that cause deep fissures in the normalization of India/Pakistan relations has to be sought. The two countries have to come to the table with determination to find a peaceful resolution to their differences. The long-term prosperity of the region will also hinge on the resolution of contentious issues.


The coalition of parties, the All Parties Democratic Movement (ADPM) that chose to boycott the elections may have made a tactical error and may have missed the opportunity to be an active partner in the formation of a new democratic process in the country. It has prevented the regional parties, namely in Baluchistan, from participating in the elections and have further widened the gulf between them and the Centre. This is regrettable since these areas have long suffered from lack of representation and equitable allocation of national development resources.


There is a flurry of activity in the capital Islamabad right now. A coalition government is being hammered together. Many a back-room deal is being done and many horses are being traded and favor recalled. What should not be forgotten in all the wheeling/dealing is that this hard fought democratic process should not lose momentum. It should not lose credibility and it definitely should not come to a grinding halt and end in a stale-mate with a hung Parliament. The hopes and aspirations of ordinary Pakistanis are pinned on the democratic forces to lead them out of the morass that the country finds itself in. The political parties, both the victors and the vanquished, must put aside their differences and work towards rebuilding the nations’ confidence, ensuring economic stability and most importantly ensuring national security. The rapid decline in security and the growing threat of armed militancy still remains a huge challenge. It is very much the elephant in the room and will not be wished away. It has to be dealt with resolution. Unanimity and cohesion has to be the new mantra of the coalition government. The focus has to now shift from personality centered politics to one of national interest.


The way forward is not clear yet. A more stable and prosperous future is an attainable goal but the many hurdles have to be dealt with before Pakistanis can see the real positive results of this election.


One issue that is sadly missing from the political narrative is that of substantive and permanent land reforms. No party except the MQM, in a limited degree, has come out clearly on the need for these long overdue and neglected reforms. There cannot be any realistic trickle-down of economic benefits unless the landless peasants are included as equal partners in economic growth. So far the landed elite have been the ones benefiting from any economic prosperity. They have by default been the class that has had most access to the division of resources, education and also been prominent in the political and policy-making processes. The peasants mostly rely on the  land-lord and have traditionally formed his/her largest constituency and voting block. With large segments of the population living in rural areas, unable to access basic education and health facilities, it is inconceivable that true or meaningful economic prosperity can be achieved without re-distribution of land and its produce. Those who work the land must be able to benefit significantly from their labors.


It is however, not a goal that is on the radar of any political party, that are largely headed by leaders who themselves are large land-owners and who do not intend to disturb the status quo in this respect. However, it should be as the future growth and prosperity of Pakistan depends on this.


There is much that needs to be done, and definitely the elections itself are not the panacea to all that ails Pakistan. It is a baby step in the right direction, but much needs to be done in terms of consistent follow-up and genuine will of the politicians to keep the greater good of the nation firmly in sight. A task easier said than done. This is an opportunity to turn the tide and move towards a more stable and prosperous nation. To encourage and cultivate new, fresh faces on the same tired political scene, to tap the resources and talents of the small middle class that can be the economic and intellectual engine that can drive the country forward.


A bigger challenge for the electoral winners is how they will deal with the United States, especially when the world’s only superpower has a huge presence in neighboring Afghanistan and the Gulf, and the insecure military regime had given myriads of concessions such as drone bases to the Unite States in Pakistan. The peoples’ aspirations do not align with American designs for the region. Gen. Musharraf is more unpopular in Pakistan than Bush is unpopular in the United States. American policymakers have to understand that Musharraf, despite heralding reforms such as a free media, lost because of his closeness to Bush and the American agenda. Time has proved that the American dictated policies have failed to stem violence, and in fact have escalated violence not only in areas bordering Afghanistan but across Pakistan. The newly elected parties want to reach out with political means to settle the issues. However, the question remains if Mr. Zardari – who got his crimes written off with Anglo-American support – will be able to resist American pressure? Already, there is a disapproving murmur over his visit to the American ambassador in Islamabad. Most Pakistanis see it as affront to their national pride that a leader elect was summoned by a foreign envoy, and agreed to visit her. The question hangs: will Zardari be able to deliver what was promised: a free judiciary, end to foreign interference and dictation, and an end to violence. Nawaz Sharif also promised the same but he does not enjoy the strength to form a government. The American policymakers and media are increasingly critical of Sharif who is being presented as an “Islamist” and “unfriendly to American interests.”


To a large extent peace and stability in the region depends of the US and UK that have assumed a certain stance over pursuing their interests there. At the moment, all eyes are on the Pakistani political leaders, the public has done its duty by casting their votes, now it is time for the politicians to deliver the goods.

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