Ballot power in Pakistan

Ballot power in Pakistan


A PPP supporter celebrates her electoral voice

Following an action- and tragedy-packed 2007, the new year began in Pakistan with unprecedented uncertainty surrounding the coming elections. All eyes were on 18 February, the day that ex-general-cum-civilian-president Pervez Musharraf had committed to unfold the so-called third phase of what he proudly called Pakistan's "real transition to democracy". In fact, this was the day that saw the beginning – or the unquestionable speeding-up – of his downfall, as the people of Pakistan spoke loudly and clearly through the ballot.

In the end, of the total 272 National Assembly seats, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) won 87; the Pakistan Muslim League (N), of Mian Nawaz Sharif, won 66; and the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid), which has long backed President Musharraf, finished with a miserable 40 seats. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the most powerful party in Sindh and formerly a coalition partner of the PML (Q), won only 19 seats. In the midst of the euphoria among what till now had been the opposition, the manner in which the voters had decisively rejected the pro-government candidates plunged the country into further uncertainty. Indeed, the question now is whether the result of the long-awaited general elections will take the country towards a new era of democracy and change, or whether Pakistanis will be dragged into more crises, including acrimony within the parties in government and a drawn-out tug-of-war between the omnipotent president and the newly elected Parliament.

The chaos following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on 27 December massively jolted Pakistan. New slogans were coined to replace the old Pakistan zindabad! One such in particular, Pakistan sai zinda bha'ag! (Run away alive from Pakistan), suddenly began popping up around the country on mobile-phone screens. One analyst in Islamabad began counting the number of times that local newspapers were using the word disintegration following Benazir's death. He reported that in a period of slightly over a month, the word 'disintegration', or words similar to it, was used more than 1600 times by just three newspapers. Ironically, he noted, President Musharraf too was impelled to use the word – though in a positive sense – intoning repeatedly, "The country will not disintegrate."

Far from heralding the country's disintegration, many claim that the poll results have reinforced the power of the ballot in Pakistan while consolidating democracy, giving a new sense of momentum all around. There are suggestions that the results challenge the widely-held Western view that Pakistan is 'unfit for democracy'. Even if the country plunged into crisis after crisis throughout 2007, in the end the citizens across Pakistan rallied and delivered a clear no-confidence vote against President Musharraf.

And this was done even though the king's party did its share to try to muzzle the public's voice. There was a lot of pre-poll rigging, in addition to the blatant misuse of state resources, including the government media. The caretaker government, consisting primarily of PML (Q) and pro-Musharraf members, is said to have threatened government officials with dismissal for supporting opposition parties. In many places, local police were also seen to be partisan towards pro-government candidates. But despite such shenanigans, the party that had ruled the country for five years was able to bag less than 15 percent of the vote.

No atta, ghee or security
The popularity of President Musharraf and his cronies started to erode drastically over the course of the last year, eventually bottoming out, according to surveys, at around 15 percent following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The beginning of this process can be traced back to the president's interference with the judiciary, followed by his imposition of a state of emergency, censoring of the media and reluctance to go to the polls. If this was not enough, just ahead of the re-scheduled election, the people saw the regime as unable to offer them security. There were long, serpentine queues at utility stores, simply to purchase flour. "No electricity, no gas, no atta [flour], no ghee and no security," was the common refrain. The public reaction against these shortages was eventually so vehement that it caused ripples within the PML (Q) itself, with members publicly accusing each other of plunder.

Besides the shortage of essential commodities, the people of Pakistan also held the government responsible for the spike in suicide bombings and other militant acts taking place across the country. According to Interior Ministry figures, in 2007 alone at least 2000 people died in 'terrorist' attacks, 558 them security personnel. The 56 suicide bombings reported during the year marked an eightfold increase over 2006. While fighting continued in the northern areas, the writ of the state had largely collapsed in many parts of the country. Indeed, given the widespread threat of suicide bombings, people had virtually stopped going to busy marketplaces.

Past and Future : Father and son remember Benazir

In addition to the deteriorating all-round situation, one of the most significant actions to further dash the PML (Q)'s electoral hopes was a series of notifications issued by the Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, directing army officials to stop meeting politicians. Various intelligence agencies had long assisted pro-government candidates, particularly during the 2002 elections. But those agencies suddenly received orders from Gen Kayani stipulating that, this time around, these candidates were to be left to contest the elections on their own. The writing was clearly on the wall.

According to Lieutenant-General (retd) Talat Masood, a defence analyst, Gen Kayani's actions were informed by the fact that the Pakistan Army's image was at an all-time low – due not only to then-General Musharraf's unpopular decisions, but also to his plummeting popularity. As such, Masood suggests, the army brass simply felt they could no longer afford to allow for any greater rift to be created between the military and the masses. "The military is engaged in various operations in the country, and Kayani must get moral support from the public for the soldiers to be able to fight the militants, especially in the tribal areas," Masood says. "If Kayani had allowed Musharraf to manipulate the elections, and if people were to come out onto the streets, it would have been a doomsday scenario not only for the army but for the country too."

Such a turn of events was devastating news for the king's party, for all along, the PML (Q) was believed to be little more than an extension of the army led by Gen Musharraf. Gen Kayani's taking over of the top military spot and calling for a withdrawal of support was subsequently widely read as the party's death knell. As it turned out, this perception was largely correct. The election results have wiped out several PML (Q) stalwarts, from Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, head of the PML (Q), to Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad and Minister for Religious Affairs Ijaz ul-Haq, who is also Gen Zia's son. In the run-up to the election, little of this was lost on the members of the PML (Q). So frustrated was the party with the situation they saw unfolding that many began contacting the PPP and PML (N), asking whether they could join – or rejoin – their forces.

Wheeling and dealing
The PPP and PML (N) are now about to gain an additional 25 and 16 seats, respectively, set aside for women and minorities in the National Assembly, based on a complex procedure that takes into account the number of members of all three parties. As such, the PPP's total strength will be 113, and that of the PML (N) will be 82. Together with the leftwing Awami National Party (ANP), this will take their combined total to 205. This is short of the magic number of a two-thirds majority of 228, out of the 342-member house, which would allow a future coalition, among other things, to bring impeachment proceedings against President Musharraf. (It should be noted, however, that the PPP was unable to achieve this two-thirds mark on its own, despite expectations of a huge sympathy wave following Benazir's assassination. This has been put down largely to Zardari's past reputation for corruption.) Although they are currently 23 votes short of the two-thirds mark, a PPP-PML (N) combine is likely win over the members of several smaller parties – the 28 independents that were recently elected, as well as six more from the religious coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), among others. This could eventually leave President Musharraf in a rather precarious position.

The president himself seems to have foreseen some of this. Soon after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, he tried to postpone the elections by attempting to form a 'national government'. His emissaries are said to have met with Asif Zardari, proposing the cobbling together of an interim government for a one-year period under Zardari as prime minister. The new widower is said to have turned down the offer outright, mainly because it would have led to the break-up of the PPP. When these talks failed, the presidential emissaries tried to woo Nawaz Sharif, through his younger brother, Shahbaz. These too came to naught. Instead, both Zardari and Nawaz Sharif took increasingly tough stances towards the president, hinting that nothing would be jointly acceptable to them except for his resignation.

At press time, the outlines of the new political scene are still fuzzy, as the three largest winners of the election among the opposition – the PPP, PML (N) and ANP – are yet to complete a second round of talks aimed at sorting out the power-sharing in government. Zardari and Sharif are slated to meet again during the last week of February, at which point they should decide on some of the more thorny issues in play, including on the selection of the next prime minister, although a PPP candidate will be the obvious choice. The other contentious issue remains the restoration of the judiciary, which Nawaz Sharif wants to do immediately, but which Zardari wants to take place through the auspices of the Parliament.

Withering Musharraf
Most observers currently suggest that if President Musharraf does not resign voluntarily, his problems are likely to increase manifold before long. Even with the hung Parliament, there will be a relatively smooth transfer of power, though the tug-of-war would undoubtedly begin amongst the parties in power. There are several possible scenarios. First and foremost, if the PPP forms a government with the PML (N) and ANP, the coalition would likely get into a serious confrontation with President Musharraf very quickly. In the party's ideal scenario, the new government would then be able to remove the president. If this did not work, however, there would likely be a continuous cold war between the offices of the president and prime minister. Meanwhile, highly placed sources indicate that the army could soon ask the president to step down.

The PPP, PML (N) and ANP are all committed to restoring those members of the judiciary that have been dismissed over the past several months. At that point, the party leaderships would undoubtedly move to quash Article 52B of the Constitution's Eighth Amendment, which gives powers to the president to remove the National Assembly. Doing so would essentially make the office of the president impotent. With a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly (a number that is still quite possible), the opposition could force the upper house, the Senate, which still contains pro-Musharraf loyalists, to pass such a motion. The unlikely event of the PPP forming a government with the assistance of President Musharraf, meanwhile, would mean that the PPP would inevitably face significant opposition from all parties opposed to the president.

As for the implications of a PPP-led federal government for domestic and regional policy, the PPP is currently forming a government on its own in Sindh; with the assistance of smaller parties in Balochistan; and with the ANP in the NWFP. The future scenario in Punjab, meanwhile, still depends on what transpires in the Centre. If the PPP and PML (N) form a government in Islamabad, then the PML (N), which won the greatest number of seats in Punjab, will have the leading role.

On a broader scale, with an elected government at the helm in Islamabad, the new ruling coalition is likely to actively work towards developing a stable relationship with India. Similarly, bilateral relations could well improve with regards to Afghanistan, particularly because an ANP government in the NWFP would not encourage the Taliban to flourish. The ANP and PPP also enjoy good ties with Hamid Karzai, which could potentially be transformed into friendlier relations between both countries, with more cooperation on the issue of militancy. Meanwhile, to belie the widely-held belief in the US that President Musharraf is still the most loyal ally in the 'war on terror', Zardari has categorically stated, "The war against the militancy is our own war, and that can only be won with the assistance of the popular support of the masses, and not with the assistance of unpopular leadership." Nawaz Sharif has echoed this stance.

Finally, regardless of the election results, little looks set to change in the recently violent Swat District or the tribal areas, where the army will continue to call the shots. On the other hand, the situation in Balochistan could see significant movement, as Zardari has already said that the PPP would negotiate with all militant groups currently fighting in either Balochistan or the tribal areas. The PPP leader has promised to "go halfway" in meeting the demands of these groups in order to bring them into the mainstream. Perhaps foremost in everyone's mind, of course, the role of the army in a PPP-PML (N)-led coalition currently looks set to be far more restrained than in the past. Under Gen Kayani, regarded as a professional soldier, the military is likely to be largely kept out of politics, at least in the near term – a reigning-in to which most Pakistanis will look forward.

~ Massoud Ansari is a journalist in Islamabad.

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