Pakistan has never voted a military ruler out of office. That could change following Monday’s parliamentary elections. Though President Pervez Musharraf was not on the ballot, the election was about his fate.
The people voted overwhelmingly against Musharraf. Even though the election was held under rules that favoured his political allies, almost every candidate who served in his government lost. So did all major leaders of the Kings Party that Musharraf cobbled together with the help of his security services soon after taking power in a 1999 military coup. The Islamists, who Musharraf used as bogeymen to garner Western support, were trounced. This is good news for everyone worried about an Islamist take-over of the world’s only nuclear-armed, Muslim-majority nation. It is a pos-thumous victory for former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, which has vindicated the sacrifice of every Pakistani imprisoned or exiled during eight years of autocratic rule, but continued demanding freedom.
Pakistan’s powerful army is beginning to distance itself from politics. Its refusal to side with Musharraf’s political allies sealed their fate. Now, it must help put Pakistan back on the constitutional path by undoing the arbitrary constitutional amendments decreed by Musharraf as army chief a few days before he relinquished his command. The depth of opposition to Musharraf, coupled with his tendency to change or break rules to stay in power, had raised serious concerns that he would manipulate the election results. International pressure, represented by the presence of three prominent US senators on election day, helped stay his hand. He also seemed to think that tilting the rules in his party’s favour would be enough for victory and fraud on polling day would be unnecessary.
That does not mean, however, that Musharraf might not still try to manipulate the situation to cling to power. He could try and create rifts between the opposition parties by negotiating separately with them, and by using his intelligence services to bribe or blackmail individual politicians.
Some members of the Bush administration have repeatedly described Musharraf as an indispensable ally in the war against terrorism. Economic and military assistance from the US and other Western countries has been crucial for his political survival thus far, and has probably contributed to his arrogance. This might be the moment for Musharraf’s Western backers to help him understand that annulment or alteration of the election results would plunge Pakistan deeper into chaos. Musharraf should not only abide by the verdict of his people, but also recognize that Pakistan—not he—is the ally the world needs to defeat terrorists.
Pakistan faces an Al Qaeda-backed insurgency along its border with Afghanistan, which is spilling over into other parts of the country. Any attempt by Musharraf to insist on retaining absolute power—rather than allowing opposition leaders Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari to return Pakistan to normal constitutional governance—would only anger the Pakistanis who have just voted for moderate, anti-terrorist parties. The ensuing chaos could strengthen the Islamist insurgents. Pakistan’s two major opposition parties—the pro-Western, centre-left Pakistan Peoples Party and the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League—toge-ther?could?have?a?two-thirds?majority?in the 342-seat National Assembly. The opposition can form a government that’s no longer subservient to him.
Even if he remains president, Musharraf will no longer remain the most powerful man in Pakistan. He has said in the past that he would rather step down than face the ignominy of being impeached by the newly elected parliament, which is now possible. The opposition would be well advised to exercise restraint. At the same time, Musharraf would have to reverse many of his arbitrary decisions in order to qualify for the opposition’s minimal cooperation.
Since 9/11, Musharraf has marketed himself to the West as the man most capable of saving Pakistan from a radical Islamist takeover. But under his rule Pakistan has become more vulnerable to terrorists than before. Furthermore, only a small sliver of the country’s 160 million people have benefited from the economic achievements of the past eight years.
The recent election campaign was marred by violence, which the government blames on terrorists. But the targets of violence have been the secular opposition parties. Opposition politicians justifiably questioned why the terrorists have not attacked pro-Musharraf groups, if he was the one fighting terror.
Musharraf must now work out an honourable exit or a workable compromise. The two parties that have emerged with popular support should get full backing from the international community in restoring democracy to Pakistan. This might prove more effective in combating terrorism than continuing to prop up a discredited and despised dictator.
Husain Haqqani, Professor of international relations at Boston University, and co-chair of the Hudson Institute’s Project on Islam and Democracy. He is the author of the Carnegie Endowment book, ‘Pakistan Between Mosque and Military’ (2005), and has served as adviser to former prime ministers, including Benazir Bhutto
The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. Comment at email@example.com