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Revenge by democracy

The irony of this election, perhaps the fairest in Pakistan’s history, is that it shows the tenacity of ethnic nationalism in the Pakistan Federation, writes Anees Jillani.
By Anees Jillani | None
UPDATED ON FEB 19, 2008 10:47 PM IST

Monday’s national elections in Pakistan may have had one of the lowest turn-outs in history, but it delighted almost everybody. There is hardly anyone who is not shocked by the extent of the rout of the ‘King’s Party’ that ruled for the past five years against the wishes of the masses but with the blessing of Pervez Musharraf. However, the shock is due to the disbelief that the establishment let the elections to be held in such a fair manner and the intelligence agencies did not interfere with the outcome for a change.

Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was all along expected to do well in her home province of Sindh and so the PPP’s landslide victory there has nothing to do with her assassination. The battery of analysts in the media were predicting the PPP would also do well in the Punjab, which elects 148 out of the total 272 members to the national assembly. In other words, it’s the 44 million Punjabi voters who decide who rules Pakistan.

The President of the ‘King’s Party’ Pakistan Muslim League-Quadi Azam (PML-Q), had angrily reacted to my prediction last week that Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N would sweep Lahore. He had said that he would retire from politics in that case. As it turned out, the PML-N did not just win 12 out of the 13 seats in Lahore but it also swept the whole of the Punjab, routing not just the PML-Q but also the PPP in the process. The best part of the hullabaloo is that almost all the prominent leaders of the Nawaz League who had deserted Nawaz Sharif when Musharraf toppled his government in October 1999 have lost. The legacy of General Zia-ul Haq, who destroyed democracy in the country by imposing the most brutal martial law in the country’s history in July 1977 and is responsible for many of the ills afflicting the society, was finally buried when his son Ejazul Haq and the billionaire son of the then Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) both lost from two constituencies each.

The people have voted for the centrist parties in all the four provinces and have shunned fundamentalism and extremism. The alliance of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA), lost miserably in its stronghold of the Frontier Province partly because of the decision of the Jamaati Islami to boycott the polls in protest against the sacking of around 60 superior court judges by Musharraf, and partly because of its poor performance while in government for the past five years in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan provinces. The Awami National Party (ANP) led by Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan’s grandson has performed well in the NWFP and is poised to form a government with the help of the PPP and some other parties. The major nationalist parties in Balochistan also boycotted the polls and this may have benefited the PML-Q as it managed to win a substantial number of seats in the Baloch Provincial Assembly and may now even try to form the government.

The irony of this election, perhaps the fairest in Pakistan’s history and for which Musharraf and the establishment should be given due credit, is that it shows the tenacity of ethnic nationalism in the Pakistan Federation. There is not a single party that has performed well throughout the state. The PPP has done wonderfully well in rural Sindh, but it lost in urban Sindh against the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), against the ANP in the Frontier and the PML-N in the Punjab. The latter was unable to secure any seats in Sindh, and Balochistan, and lost badly in the Frontier. The ANP is non-existent in the rest of Pakistan, except in the Pukhtun-inhabited areas. Baloch nationalists reign supreme in their province and the murder of their compatriot, Akbar Bugti, has strengthened their resolve to oppose the central authority.

This is hardly an omen for a peaceful future, but the military’s continued interference in the democratic process must be blamed for the extreme weakened state of political parties and for fomenting these fissiparous tendencies in the country. The PPP and the PML-N are now in a comfortable position to form a coalition government at the Centre and in the Punjab. The PPP can easily form the government on its own in Sindh. The issue now will be how these two arch-rivals will manage to stick together in government.

Nawaz Sharif will be keen to get rid of Musharraf, something constitutionally possible only through impeachment. The PML-Q now has a majority in the Senate and this would not be probable at least in the near future. The PPP does not feel so strongly against President Musharraf and may not rock the boat over this concern. Similarly, the PML-N has openly been advocating the restoration of the sacked judges, led by the deposed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The PPP, even during Benazir’s time, has kept insisting that this matter will be decided by the next Parliament and has never expressed its enthusiasm for the restoration of these judges. These two issues may be one of the first ones to crop up in the coming weeks.

These differences, coupled with others, may reach a stage where the PML-N decides to sit in the Opposition and the MQM and the PML-Q join a coalition led by the PPP. This would be most ironical. It is a different matter that such a move may not be so popular with the party workers. But this is the fruit of democracy: variety and disorder and dispensing a sort of equality that a military mind, for some reason, fails to comprehend.

Anees Jillani is an Islamabad-based advocate at the Pakistani Supreme Court.

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