February 20, 2008

People’s power

Filed under: POST-ELECTIONS 2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 4:54 am
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FEB 20, 2008

Husain Haqqani

In 60 years as an independent country, Pakistan has never changed its government through an election. Monday’s election results offer an opportunity for Pakistanis to change that aspect of history. Notwithstanding considerable manipulation beforehand, the people voted overwhelmingly against the Musharraf rule. Almost every candidate who served in Musharraf’s government lost. So did all major leaders of the King’s Party Musharraf cobbled together with the help of his security services soon after taking power in a 1999 military coup. The JUI/MMA used by Musharraf as bogeymen to garner western support were also trounced. The sacrifice of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was vindicated as was the suffering of everyone who suffered disappearance, imprisonment or exile during eight years of violent autocratic rule.
Pakistan’s all-powerful army, now under the command of General Ashfaq Kayani, is beginning to distance itself from politics. The army’s refusal to side with Musharraf’s political allies in the electoral process sealed their fate. Now, the army must help Pakistan back on the constitutional path by undoing the arbitrary constitutional amendments decreed by Musharraf as army chief a few days before relinquishing his command. The intelligence services should revert to their real job of protecting the nation from external enemies instead of demonising politicians and influencing their loyalties.
The depth of opposition to Musharraf, coupled with his tendency to change or break rules to stay in power, had raised serious doubts that he would manipulate the election results in favour of his allies. In the end, international pressure and a tendency to over-estimate his own ability stayed Musharraf’s hand. Just two days before polling day, Musharraf said in an interview that the next government would be formed by the PML-Q and MQM, reflecting his hubris and over-confidence. From faulty voters lists to an Election Commission that refused to pay serious attention to opposition complaints, all arrangements favoured the ruling party. Huge amounts of government funds were at the disposal of Musharraf’s allies as was government transport and support of the police and administration. Opposition candidates had been harassed and intimidated. The media had been pressured and threatened. PTV ran nasty propaganda. Rumours and innuendo, always used against the country’s popular politicians by the establishment, were spread as efficiently as in the past.
Most independent observers, including the European Union and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) supported opposition complaints that election rules are skewed to favour the ruling party in what is described as pre-poll rigging. But in the end the sheer magnitude of the opposition’s support overwhelmed the odds of a partisan Election Commission and tilted election rules. Musharraf threatened the opposition to accept election results in his characteristic fashion, not realising that it might be him who would have to accept the polls as a referendum against him.
That does not mean, however, that Musharraf would not try now and manipulate the situation again to cling to power. There is an extremely self-centred side to him, reflected increasingly over the last 18 months. Anyone who thinks he can get away with redefining anything and considers himself the best judge of every issue and situation is capable of unpredictable. Musharraf called the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court “scum of the earth” in a media interview. One should not put it past the man to delude himself like General Yahya Khan that the people of Pakistan have made a terrible mistake, which he can somehow rectify with the help of intelligence agencies. That would be terrible and disastrous and hopefully would not be allowed by anyone, including his own aides and associates.
Some members of the Bush administration have repeatedly described Musharraf as an indispensable ally in the war on terror. Economic and military assistance from the United States and other western countries has been crucial for Musharraf’s 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 will only plunge Pakistan deeper into chaos. Pakistan already 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 vast majority of Pakistanis who have just voted for moderate anti-terrorist parties. The ensuing chaos could strengthen the violent insurgents.
Musharraf was not on the ballot on Monday but the election was all about his fate, and that of Pakistan. Late last year, he had himself “elected” President by Pakistan’s outgoing parliament, which was itself chosen through a dubious election in 2002, and fired 60 percent of superior court judges to forestall judicial review of the presidential election. Election results show that Pakistan’s two major opposition parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), together have secured an outright majority in the 342 seat National Assembly and Musharraf’s allies have been virtually wiped out. The opposition could now form a government that is no longer subservient to Musharraf. Even if he remains president, he would no longer remain the most powerful man in Pakistan.
Musharraf has said in the past that he would rather step down than face impeachment by the newly elected parliament, which might now be possible.
Since 9/11, Musharraf has marketed himself to the west as the man most capable of saving Pakistan from an Islamist takeover. But under his rule Pakistan has become more vulnerable to terrorists than before. Apart from failing in combating terrorism, Musharraf’s government has squandered goodwill through its arbitrary actions against the political opposition and judiciary. Although Pakistan has enjoyed an economic boom for the last eight years, with annual GDP growth rates of 6-7 percent and generous inflows of foreign (mainly US economic and military aid), only a small sliver of the country 160 million people has benefited. The vast majority remains mired in poverty, with high unemployment and rising prices of essential commodities adding to the grievances of the poor.
The election campaign was marred by violence, which the government blames on terrorists. But the targets of violence have been the secular opposition parties – the most notable victim being Benazir Bhutto who became an icon of democracy for Pakistanis after her assassination on December 27. Opposition politicians justifiably expressed doubts as to why the terrorists have not attacked pro-Musharraf groups given that he is the man supposedly fighting them. Musharraf would have damaged his credibility further if he had rigged the results and then proceeded to suppress likely protests by force. Losing the election might actually be better for him – and Pakistan. Now he must accept the consequence of defeat and work out an honourable exit. And the political process must this time be given a fair chance by Pakistan’s establishment of generals, bureaucrats and technocrats that has become accustomed to undermining constitutional rule.


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