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ALL those sceptical about the prospects of a peaceful and successful election in Pakistan have been proven wrong. And for once no one seems to be complaining. Not only were the elections relatively ‘free and fair’, belying apprehension of widespread violence and rigging, the electorate has returned an unambiguous verdict. Both President Musharraf and the incumbent ruling party, the PML(Q), have been dealt a decisive blow, as have many of the stalwarts of the MMA, a coalition of Islamist parties in the NWFP which had extended support to Musharraf’s civilian rule experiment.

Equally significant is the fact that no party has come close to an absolute majority. The PPP, as expected, has retained rural Sindh; Nawaz Sharif’s PML has emerged as the largest formation in Punjab; the MQM maintains its primacy in urban Sindh; and provincial parties and leaders remain a dominant force in Balochistan and the NWFP. At one level this exposes a dominant fault-line in Pakistan society and politics, one that the six decade long attempt to construct a hegemonic idea of Pakistan drawing primarily on its identity as a Muslim nation has been unable to submerge. Yet, to read into this an impending likelihood of disintegration would be fallacious. For not only have each of the dominant parties won seats in different regions, the forces of market and administration have over the years helped create a far more unified Pakistan than may have been imagined at the time of its birth.

The results will now force the political elite of Pakistan to move away from their older style and not only eschew a politics of patronage and coercion but genuinely collaborate across personality and ideological divides if they are to effect a successful transition away from military rule. Trying to strike secret deals with either Musharraf or the army establishment – a relationship that some in the West (read the current US establishment) might favour, is likely to generate public outrage – something that Benazir Bhutto soon realized. No wonder her stance about collaborating with Musharraf changed soon after she returned to the country. The sooner the Asif Zardari led PPP and the Nawaz Sharif led PML come to an understanding, the better it would be for the country.

Not that this will be easy. For a start, the PML desires to see the back of Musharraf, in their view a major cause of Pakistan’s current problems. Nawaz Sharif would also find it difficult to forget Musharraf’s role in deposing and deporting him and worse, not permitting him to contest the recent elections. More significantly, the PML wants the reinstatement of the ‘sacked’ judiciary, including the erstwhile Chief Justice and the reinstitution of the 1970 Constitution. The PPP, so far, has been ambiguous on these issues. Fortunately, since neither can really do without the other, some compromise deal is likely to be worked out.

Alongside is the challenge of restoring the credibility of the institutional order, specifically the Parliament, politicians and political parties. It is not just in Pakistan that these institutions enjoy low credibility and trust, matched only by the deep distrust in the police and bureaucracy. What is unique about Pakistan is the continuing credibility of the army. No wonder, successive military rulers have played on this deep distrust of political institutions to justify their rule. It is also crucial that when Musharraf look over and deported both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the move was welcomed by substantial sections of the intelligentsia and civil society. Much as we hate to admit, the self-professed opinion-makers are as responsible as the military establishment in stifling the growth of genuine democracy.

Less than two years back the military staged a coup in Thailand, deposing the regime of Thaksin Shinawatra. In this it received substantial support not only from the Palace but the Bangkok-based urban elite critical of Thaksin’s ‘corruption’ and populist policies. Today, a political party openly espousing Thaksin’s policies is back in power through an open electoral process. The lessons from Pakistan are no different. Hopefully, other countries in the region, notably Bangladesh and Myanmar, will draw the needed lessons.

Only if the army remains in the barracks and reverts to its professional and constitutional role, that of safeguarding the nation’s frontiers and integrity, and the political class learns from its past mistakes, can Pakistan begin the healing process to ensure peace and stability. The recent elections have once again made this possible. We can only hope that the opportunity will not be frittered away.

Harsh Sethi

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