Hope replaced gloom in Pakistan on Tuesday as the electorate banished President Pervez Musharraf’s favourite PML-Q to the political outhouse in a split mandate that made power-sharing mandatory for the winning parties, notably the PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League.
The verdict was widely perceived as a democratic counter to Musharraf’s October 1999 coup against Sharif, triggering speculation about the political viability, even acceptability, of the beleaguered President's unilateral offer to work with the winners. On private television channels, questions were frequent about the tenability of his continuation in the Aiwan-e-Sadr.
The catch-22 situation made analysts recommend replication of the Indian experiment that saw the BJP place contentious issues on the backburner to set up an issue-based National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
But it's early days still for Sharif to rethink his demand for restoration of the discarded higher judiciary to try Musharraf for ‘willful’ exercise of power that, incidentally, included promulgation of the national reconciliation ordinance to insulate the since martyred Benazir Bhutto from corruption charges.
In his first comments in Lahore on Tuesday, Sharif reaffirmed his key demands, discerning observers only noticing a softening of tone, not substance. The former PM confirmed taking up with Asif Ali Zardari the issues on which the PPP has a more nuanced position, like leaving the sacked judges recall to Parliamentary wisdom. Detailed discussions will shortly follow to narrow, if at all, the gap.
Musharraf, in his reaction, reportedly told a delegation of US Senators, who are in the country as poll observers, that he would respect the power of the new PM. He hoped the next government would work in a "harmonious manner with all the stakeholders".
"The post-election scenario had unfolded new political dynamics which hopefully would move in a positive direction," he said.
In the elections retrospectively viewed as fair, the PPP's emergence as the single largest party, followed by the PML-N, places on it the onus of carving a government out of the hung 272-strong National Assembly with four vacancies.
Barring Sindh, where Benazir's party can form a government of its own, single party rule isn't also possible in Punjab, the NWFP and Balochistan, where the Q league gained from the nationalists' poll boycott and factionalism within Fazlur Rahman's Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI).
The Nawaz group exceeded expectations in Punjab but failed to open account in Sindh and Balochistan. Its performance in the NWFP isn't also worth writing home about.
The scenario could turn murkier if the PPP and PML-N do not quickly agree to a minimum workable programme so fashionable in India. Despite losing its top leadership to popular outrage, the Q league has retained at the Centre and in the provinces a legislative presence that could attract poachers. But any such move would destroy the very essence of the 2008 mandate for coexistence of mainline parties to keep extra-constitutional forces from fishing in troubled waters.
"Pragmatism, flexibility and accommodation alone will help strike common ground on vexed questions," said veteran commentator I.A. Rahman. He said there are lessons to be drawn from Vajpayee's reminder to BJP hawks that certain goals were unattainable without clear popular verdicts. "It's a test of Sharif's leadership and that of Zardari. Some issues are too explosive to be left to party caucuses."
The PPP has good reasons to celebrate its pan-Pakistan showing coupled with the number one status at the Centre and in Sindh. But the recognition brings with it the responsibility of sewing up a lasting coalition.
For the present, it can negotiate from a position of strength with smaller groupings such as the Awami National Party and the MQM, whose leader Altaf Hussain, known for his proximity to Musharraf, has unilaterally offered to cooperate with Sharif and Zardari.
Together with the ANP, the MQM and the Independents, the PPP-PML-N combine can attain a two-thirds majority in the House.
Skeptical earlier of the outcome of polls, Rahman recognised now the possibility of a democratic dispensation despite the protagonists' "inexperience" in running coalitions.
Much will depend, however, on the way the political class conducts itself. It can either consolidate its gains or end up repeating history that saw elected regimes expended at the altar of personal ambitions and intolerance.