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A Red Letter Day for Democracy in Pakistan

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee

The people of Pakistan at long last got what they wanted and cherished most dearly for all these years. The landmark elections of 18 February 2008 brought back democracy in its colourful glory. Common people everywhere have welcomed the assertion of people power in Pakistan. The ordinary citizens of Pakistan who had for so long suffered under the boot straps of Military Dictatorships finally unshackled themselves and seen off the end of that blighted system hopefully for all time to come.

The importance of the event can be judged by the fact that Pakistan since its birth more than 60 years ago was ruled either by the Military or by regimes elected by stage-managed guided democracies that were at the beck and call of the Military.

This time it was different. Amid wild rumours, which had spread like forest fire, that the regime would spare no effort to massively rig the elections to produce a result that would favour President Pervez Musharraf, the election went off relatively peacefully and what was remarkable was that except for reports of sporadic rigging, there were no signs of massive rigging as feared. The Kings Party or otherwise known as Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam), which supported President Musharraf suffered massive defeats all across the country. The entire front line leadership of the Party was decimated. It embarrassed the President so deeply that, although a smooth talker that he is, he was rendered speechless.

So what was the tally of seats won in the general elections? Out of the total number of seats in the National Assembly of 342, the party that secured the largest number in the National Assembly was the Pakistan Peoples Party of the slain leader Benazir Bhutto now run by her widowed husband Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari. It secured 120 seats. Closely following was the Pakistan Muslim League (N) of Nawaz Sharif, a former Prime Minister. It won 90 seats. President Musharraf’s PML (Q) came a poor third in the electoral race with 37 seats. The Party of the Muhajirs - the refugees from India - the Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz of Altaf Hussain secured 20 seats; the secular Awami National Party of NWFP led by Isfandiyar Wali Khan, grandson of the famous Khan Abdul Gaffaar Khan, known as the Frontier Gandhi - a former Congress stalwart of the freedom movement days - got 10 seats; the Islamist Fundamentalist Party, Muttahida Majlis e Amal led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman had to remain content with only 2 seats. There were 27 independents and the remaining were small local parties.

The Islamic fundamentalist Party Jamaat-e-Islami led by Qazi Hussain Ahmed and the Tehrik-e-Insaf Party of the former cricketer Imran Khan and the entire list of nationalist parties in Balochistan and Sindh boycotted the elections.

Considering that no single party secured an absolute majority, the PPP, the PML (N), the ANP and the MMA, supported by some of the Independents formed a post-election alliance, setting in motion Pakistan’s first experience of a democratically elected Coalition Government at the Centre. It however took 20 days for the two main parties PPP and the PML (N) to agree to the power sharing arrangement. The Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) would join Zardari’s PPP-led Government at the Centre and PPP would join PML (N) led government in Punjab. The two Parties also agreed that the Supreme Court Judges sacked by President Musharraf on 3 November 2007 when he imposed emergency rule in Pakistan will be reinstated within a month of government formation through a resolution in the National Assembly.

The agreement made no reference to the impeachment of President Pervez Musharraf. The incoming administration doesn’t have the required two-thirds majority in the National Assembly to initiate and succeed in the action. Apart from this inadequacy in numbers, President George W Bush, who had invested so heavily in Musharraf in his War on Terror, was not in favour of such punitive action against him. The next best alternative for the new government, if it insists to stay the course, will be to ask Musharraf to seek a vote of confidence in the House. There is no doubt that Musharraf will lose if the confidence motion was put to vote. So much animosity has built up against him that he may have to quit before legal action of any variety is brought against him in either the National Assembly or the Supreme Court. If he decides to stubbornly hold on to power, the Federal Government is likely to be paralysed.

Much depends on General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, the Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan Army. He is said to be a professional soldier with little interest in getting into the rough and tumble of politics. Before the elections were held he had instructed the Army not to interfere in the electoral process, which was why rigging by the ruling Kings Party of Musharraf became impossible. After the elections were over the Army was not allowed to interfere with the political processes in government formation. Such categorical stands taken by General Kayani have been interpreted by the talking heads of the media as meaning that the Army would not back President Musharraf if he got into trouble which in other words mean that he will not be allowed to stage another Military Coup if he wants to save himself from hostile legal action in the National Assembly or the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, General Ashfaq Kayani who was the key military aide to Benazir Bhutto when she was the Prime Minister is reportedly in close contact with Benazir’s widowed husband Asif Ali Zadari helping him in formatting the incoming administration. The support of the US from the background to the on-going Zardari-Kayani confabulations could mean that Musharraf’s exit from the Presidential Palace in Islamabad may be only a matter of time.

It also means that irrespective of the widely held view of General Kayani’s scant interest in politics, the Army will continue to remain at the centre stage of Pakistani politics. Not as the rulers perhaps but as partners of a democratically elected government.

It may shape up as another local variant among the many forms of democratic practice known in the world but this will be noted for its Pakistani characteristics. It will certainly be a million times better than the brutal Military Dictatorships directly run from the Army’s GHQ in Rawalpindi.

Among all the known enemies, what the Military Dictatorships fear most is Democracy. So why did Musharraf allow the elections to go ahead in the first place. Musharraf was heavily backed by US President George W Bush, who has pumped into the hands of the good General at least $11 billion since 9/11 of 2001. Intelligence sources in South Asia have indicated that a significant portion of these unaccounted for corpus had found its way to funding the terror outfits fighting in Kashmir. Perhaps in Afghanistan too. One thing is certain: hardly anything out of this money filtered into the hands of the poor in Pakistan. The US expectation was that Musharraf would catch the Al Qaeda terror leader Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayaman al Zawahiri and the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and hand them over to Washington. Musharraf failed in his brief and lost the confidence of the superpower. Bush found Musharraf as dispensable and supported the restoration of democracy with Benazir Bhutto as the head of the civilian government.

After Benazir’s assassination the scene changed dramatically. The election brought in Nawaz Sharif as a serious player in the Coalition Government. A triangular power sharing between Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf will be unworkable for the President. Nawaz Sharif was treated very badly by Musharraf since his Military Coup against him in 1999 and it couldn’t be that now that Nawaz Sharif will be in power, the past discourtesies will be forgotten or forgiven. Seen from any angle, Musharraf has slim chance of survival in the given circumstance. Return of democracy has rendered Musharraf to be an yesterday’s man. His exit will be celebrated across the country.

Apart from the pressures and influences brought to bear by the US in encouraging the restoration of democracy in Pakistan, India’s role in creating a rush of democratic aspirations among the people of Pakistan was of vital importance. The existence of the largest and the most vibrant democracy in the world next door has played its part in creating a momentum of its own. It took a long time but every historic moment has its own time of destiny. Such a historic moment had arrived. Nobody can deny that the non-interventionist Indian democracy helped to galvanise the democratic forces in Pakistan.

India’s role model in creating a suitable ambience in favour of democracy can be compared to a phenomenon in the natural world of the birds called the “flying geese model” which has a relevance of its own in the spread of democracy. As the Queen Goose takes to the skies, the rest of the flock also join in taking to the air and flying in formation like a squadron of jet fighters. The flying geese model has the potential to prop the entire sub-continental group of nations called SAARC or the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation to follow India’s example to embrace democracy just as the proverbial geese in the flock take to the air following the example of the Queen Goose.

India’s advocacy of secularism and soft power have also influenced Pakistani thinking at the popular level in a substantial way.

A development of great significance is the decimation of Muttahida Majlis e Amal ( MMA ) led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman in the 18 February 2008 elections. Just as the MMA, an Islamist fundamentalist Party, had laid claim to the biological fatherhood of the Taliban Movement, Pakistan Army’s Intelligence Services - the ISI - is well known for incubating the Taliban. Under the Military Dictatorship, the MMA ran the Provincial Governments in NWFP and Balochistan and wielded power at the level of the Federal Government. On 18 February 2008, the MMA could win only 2 seats in the 342-member National Assembly.

As the MMA suffered complete humiliation at the polls, one thing became obvious that the people of Pakistan were quite literally fed up with religious extremism and terrorist violence and they wanted the fundamentalists to quit the scene and let people rule over their own destinies.

If not for anything else the rejection by the people of Pakistan of the twin scourges of extremist violence and military dictatorship make the elections of 18 February 2008 a moment in history that has the potential to change the history of the region, perhaps also of the world.

The writer is the author “India’s Security Dilemmas- Pakistan and Bangladesh”

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