ASTONISHINGLY, right to the eve of Pakistan’s general election on February 18th, President Pervez Musharraf seemed to think he was popular. He predicted victory for the former ruling party, a gang of cronies known as the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), or PML(Q). The opinion polls—and the voices heard on any Pakistani street—said otherwise. And they were right. The “king’s party”, as the PML(Q) is known, was routed. It won 42 of a possible 268 parliamentary seats. On a day of royal comeuppance, 19 of Mr Musharraf’s former ministers lost their seats.
Two opposition parties were the main beneficiaries. As predicted, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), whose leader, Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, was assassinated on December 27th while campaigning for the poll, emerged as the biggest party, with 88 seats. With another 25 indirectly elected seats—out of a total of 44 reserved for women and members of religious minorities—it will lead the bargaining to form a coalition government. In concurrent voting for Pakistan’s four provincial assemblies, it also won a majority in Sindh. But the PPP did not win the deluge of sympathy votes in memory of its murdered leader it had hoped for. Indeed, with just over 30% of the vote, its performance was consistent with most recent elections.
The single big upset of the poll was the strong showing of the second opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)—or PML(N). In Pakistan’s last election in 2002, the party won 18 seats. At the time its leader, Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, pictured above, was in exile. This time it won 65 seats. These were mostly in Punjab, the province with more than half the seats, and mostly at the expense of the PML(Q). With around 20 indirectly elected seats, and support from independents, the PML(N) will hope to scrape a majority in the Punjab assembly.
With control of Punjab, Mr Sharif would be well-placed to rebuild his party with an eye to the next election. Or even, as many heady Pakistanis currently expect, he might enter into a coalition with his bitter rival, the PPP. On February 21st Mr Sharif and the PPP’s new leader—Miss Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari—declared that this was their aim. “We will work together to form the government,” said Mr Sharif. Though whether they would succeed in this endeavour, given the many grave differences between them, was unclear.
The PML(N)’s recovery is especially remarkable in a country where voters tend to pitch for the candidate best able to dish out patronage. Having been forbidden to return to Pakistan until last November, after the parties had picked most of their candidates for the election, Mr Sharif had weak representatives. By contrast, throughout the election campaign PML(Q) candidates were able to abuse their former powers as the king’s party.
Pervaiz Elahi, the party’s prime ministerial candidate and former chief minister of Punjab, was accused of dispensing gifts of 1,500 rupees ($24) from public funds, ostensibly as grants to the poor. As surety, recipients were made to supply their identity details, raising suspicions that Mr Elahi meant to tinker with voter lists. Certainly, PML(Q) candidates commandeered government vehicles to ferry campaign workers and voters. The agent of these abuses was often a district mayor, or nazim, an office established by Mr Musharraf. Having rigged two rounds of local-government elections, Mr Musharraf’s supporters have bagged most of these posts. In Punjab, 33 out of 35 district mayors are PML(Q) supporters. Many campaigned openly for the king’s candidate—who was often also a family member. With fat development budgets at their disposal, Punjab’s mayors illegally disbursed millions of dollars in election patronage.
In a typical ploy, the nazim of the southern Punjabi city of Multan, Faisal Mukhtar, promised property rights to slum-dwellers in the city. In “Double Phattak”, a collection of around 100 muddy hovels under a road-bridge in the city, local residents, mostly Christians, Hindus and migrants from India, were sceptical of this offer. “When the politicians want our votes, they promise us papers, then they do nothing,” said Sajjid Bhatti, an unemployed 27-year-old. Nonetheless, Mr Bhatti said he would vote for Mr Mukhtar’s brother, Fazal Mukhtar, the local PML(Q) parliamentary candidate.
Perhaps he lied. At least, such schemes did not save Mr Mukhtar and other well-connected PML(Q) men from defeat. Nor, despite fears to the contrary, did Mr Musharraf’s intelligence agencies, the usual instruments of election-rigging in Pakistan, make any obvious effort to prevent this. Among the big losers was Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, leader of the party and godfather to the entrepreneurial Punjabi clan that controls it. He stood in two constituencies, and lost them both—despite the intimidation of voters by his well-armed bodyguards. On the eve of the election, they fired on supporters of Mr Hussain’s main rival, the PPP’s Ahmed Mukhtar, wounding two of them. Mr Mukhtar won the seat all the same.
On the fringe of this drama, the country’s Islamist parties, which have also supported Mr Musharraf, were obliterated. In 2002 army agents moulded them into a five-party bloc, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). It proceeded to win unprecedented power for the mullahs, including 59 seats in parliament and control of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). In this election, the mullahs were trounced in NWFP and won three parliamentary seats.
The Mullahs’ Meagre Appeal
That was predicted, for several reasons. First, the mullahs’ provincial administration was as corrupt as any other in Pakistan, and more incompetent than most. It was also blamed, perhaps harshly, for failing to curb worsening insecurity in NWFP, including a Taliban insurgency. Venomously divided over the policies of Mr Musharraf, including a blundering counter-insurgency campaign, the MMA has also split. Its second-biggest member, the Jamaat-e-Islaami, boycotted the poll; its votes probably went to the pious PML(N).
In NWFP, the MMA has been supplanted by the Awami National Party (ANP) which appeals to the nationalist sentiments of the province’s ethnic-Pushtun inhabitants. It was the only party to launch a serious election campaign in the violent region. It suffered two suicide-bomb attacks on its rallies, killing 38 people, and won ten parliamentary seats. Happily, there were no terrorist attacks on election day—though around 20 people died in political violence.
In a three-horse race with the king’s party and the PPP, the success of Mr Sharif’s PML(N) is more complex. Some elated pundits have styled it a watershed in Pakistani politics—the trumping of local patronage politics by concern for national issues. After all, unlike the more conciliatory PPP, Mr Sharif has taken a fiercely principled stand against Mr Musharraf. He has demanded the restoration of 60 judges sacked by the former dictator in November, under cover of a state of emergency. This was part of the plot to have Mr Musharraf re-elected president, probably illegally. Though no stickler for legal process during his own riotous spells in power, Mr Sharif has demanded that Mr Musharraf resign—or face impeachment by a two-thirds majority of the next parliament.
This is a popular message in Pakistan. According to a poll for the International Republican Institute, 70% of Pakistanis think Mr Musharraf should quit. Unnerved by Islamist terrorists—who have killed over 450 people this year—many object to his support for America, in an apparently self-defeating “war on terror”. Most Pakistanis also blame Mr Musharraf for the assassination of Miss Bhutto, in a gunfire and suicide-bomb attack. More generally, they have had enough, at least for now, of being pushed around by an arrogant, unaccountable and omnipresent army. Above all, the poor mass of Pakistanis are enraged by gnawing inflation, food shortages and worsening power cuts.
That is why they voted to get rid of Mr Musharraf’s proxies, the PML(Q). But they did so in timeworn fashion, with most Punjabis voting for the conservative, Punjab-based PML(N), and most of the rest voting for the left-leaning Pakistan-wide PPP. In so doing, they exposed Mr Musharraf’s nine-year rule as a political aberration. They also reopened the root division in Pakistani politics. With neither the PPP nor the PML(N) able to secure a consistent majority, their rivalry has contributed to a dire cycle of unstable civilian governments interspersed with army takeovers.
Welcome as it is, the “restoration of Pakistani democracy,” a favourite phrase of Miss Bhutto’s, needs to be seen in this sobering context, of which the army also forms a part. A selfish gene of an institution, it has ruled the country more often than not; but it has always withdrawn from politics rather than risk the wrath of vengeful civilians. Now, at a time of widespread anti-army feeling, the recently appointed army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, has ordered a retreat from the civilian sphere. Some 300 army officers posted in companies and ministries are to be moved to military duties. And on February 16th General Kiyani called a meeting of his senior commanders and ordered them not to take sides in the election, which 81,000 of his soldiers had been deployed to protect.
To improve Pakistani democracy, the army will have to maintain its independence. Moreover, in the grip of a spiralling insurgency, which has claimed over 1,000 troops in the past five years, it has plenty of real soldiering to do. And America, which has bankrolled its campaign against the Taliban, is on the verge of holding it to account. The Democrat-controlled Congress has given warning that the cash-flood will depend on the army keeping its nose out of politics, and on more stringent accounting for its expenditure on the frontier. On the latter, there is room for improvement. America has provided $5.4 billion to pay the cost of the military campaign. According to a Western soldier in Islamabad, only 30% of this sum has been spent on its intended purpose. The rest has gone missing.
Pakistan needs its politicians to behave better, too. After a long and mutually destructive rivalry co-operation between the PPP and PML(N) might augur this. As an act of reconciliation, it truly would be a watershed in Pakistan. It would also very likely mean the end for Mr Musharraf, as the probable price of Mr Sharif’s involvement in government. Indeed, with support from independents, the ANP and other small parties, it could muster the votes to impeach the president. This would be popular. But it may yet not happen.
Benazir’s unclaimed legacy
Mr Zardari has inherited his wife’s party, but not her authority. In her absence, Pakistan has no national leader. And Mr Sharif, the wily champion of Punjab, is a more formidable regional leader than Mr Zardari, who is a Sindhi landowner widely suspected of corruption. With important ideological differences between the two parties, moreover, their marriage would almost certainly be short-lived.
Mr Zardari’s alternative is to form a coalition with every party except Mr Sharif’s—including the king’s party, PML(Q). In such an arrangement, the PPP and PML(Q) would share power in Punjab; and Mr Musharraf would keep his job. Many PPP supporters would consider that a betrayal; though it had been Miss Bhutto’s plan. But with the PPP as the unrivalled leader of this government, Mr Zardari might consider it a safer option nonetheless.