Manipal, India — After the Feb. 18 "peaceful" general elections in Pakistan, where "moderate" candidates overwhelmingly trounced their "extremist" rivals, most international commentators have agreed with the Pakistani analysts nesting in think tanks across the United States and elsewhere that the country's slide into chaos will decelerate and may even be reversed.
No less an expert on third world elections than U.S. Senator John Kerry has pronounced the Pakistan poll to have "credibility and legitimacy," a sentiment apparently shared by his colleague, Joe Biden. In fact, the election results indicate that the poll was less than fair, although conditions on the ground clearly made the manipulation less than completely effective.
While the Pakistan People's Party -- which was expected abroad to secure a majority on the basis of the "sympathy" vote following the killing of Benazir Bhutto -- got 87 of the 287 contested seats, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League won just 66, a performance at variance with ground reality, which had indicated the party would register a much better performance.
Given the dodgy reputation of Bhutto's widower and newly anointed PPP leader, A.A. Zardari -- plus the fact that her visible eagerness to do the bidding of Washington had cost her much popularity in a society that is, after the Palestinian territories, one of the most anti-United States in the world -- the PPP ought to have come second to Sharif's PML(N), instead of emerging as the largest single party. Clearly, and contra-intuitively, the fact that the PPP has not-so-secretly been in parleys with Musharraf helped rather than hurt, despite the loathing with which most Pakistanis regard their head of state.
The Bhutto family's faithful political party was enabled to prevail over that run by rival Sharif, but not by enough to have a reasonable chance of forming a stable coalition. Joining hands with the party of settlers from India, the 19-strong Muttahida Qaumi Movement, would risk an erosion in the PPP's core base among Sindhis, while the National Awami Party, which won 10 seats in the face of both army as well as jihadi intimidation in Pakistan's northwest, would find a tie-up with Zardari uncomfortable.
Incidentally, the NAP's spectacular rise from zero seats to 10 can be explained by its anti-U.S. political stance, while the collapse of the religious right's Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MAM, from 59 seats in 2002 to just three this time can be substantially traced to its backing of "U.S. poodle" Pervez Musharraf rather than any electoral disenchantment with its core ideology of Wahabbism.
While Sharif may, under U.S. pressure, agree to a "grand alliance" between the PML(N) and the PPP, this would be a short-term tactical move designed to ensure the exit of arch foe Musharraf, who today has only the Bush administration as his prop, having lost the army to the Punjabi lobby. A PPP-PML(N) coalition government would be uneasy at best, for both partners would need to feed on the other's base to strengthen themselves.
The other option -- the one Musharraf would favor -- would be an alliance between the PPP and the erstwhile ruling party, the PML(Q),which has won just 38 seats despite clandestine backing from the government. Together with most of the 27 independents, as well as some smaller parties, such a coalition would be more cohesive than a PPP-PML(N) construct, and would command a comfortable majority even if the MQM and the NAP decided to remain in the opposition, together with the PML(N).
However, such a linkage would mean the death of the numerous corruption cases and enquiries into Zardari's opulent lifestyle, which has thus far centered on his rural fief in Sindh as well as palatial residences in Dubai and London. In this formation Musharraf would still have some say, and could be expected to use this to intensify probes against Nawaz Sharif. Sharif's family has come from nowhere to become probably the wealthiest in Pakistan, an ascent that began in the 198Os when military strongman Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq was chief martial law administrator of the country.
Nawaz Sharif is trusted by neither the United States nor by the non-Punjabi component of the military. Washington seems him as an unreliable partner, while non-Punjabis correctly identify him as being a provincial chieftain committed to the continuation of Punjabi supremacy in Pakistan. However, his credible performance -- in the face of what seems to have been an organized effort to ensure a PPP/ PML(Q) surge -- may result in pressure from the United States to combine with Zardari, to form a coalition that looks strong in numbers but which would have fatal flaws in its chemistry.
Democracy in Pakistan would be better served by the PML(N), the NAP and the MQM forming a sizeable and effective opposition bloc in the National Assembly, and calling for such popular measures as the reinstatement of judges sacked by Musharraf, especially the Punjab favorite, former Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhury. Such a move is unlikely to sit well with Zardari, who sees in the judge a mortal enemy who was eager to send him back to prison.
Only a supreme act of self-abnegation by the PPP leader, such as the handover of the prime minister post to the upright Aitzaz Ahsan, can enable the PPP to face the political challenge sure to be mounted by a resurgent Nawaz Sharif. In South Asia, such a sacrifice of power is rare. Only when forced by circumstances to return to the sidelines -- as Sonia Gandhi was in 2004 -- do the region's politicians surrender a shot at high office.
Neither the Zardari-led PPP nor the tatty band of religious zealots backing Pervez Musharraf has the will or the ability to change the ground reality in Pakistan. The minds of most of the young are taken over by a ferocious ideology of hatred toward the United States and the West generally, caused by images of NATO troops occupying Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those in Washington that so regularly call on Pakistan to "do more" in the War on Terror need to appreciate that it is in fact their own policies that have become the most effective recruiters for the international jihad.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)