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    South Asia
     Feb 20, 2008
In Pakistan, the revenge of democracy
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

Incoming results from Pakistan's general elections on Monday show a landslide victory for opposition parties with the ruling party of President Pervez Musharraf and his allies headed for a crushing defeat. The greatest gains have been made by the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of former premier Nawaz Sharif. Stinging defeats have been handed to several stalwarts of the ruling party.

Analysts say the margin of difference is so decisive that pro-Musharraf forces throughout Pakistan face an uncertain political future. Still, as no single party has won an overall majority, it seems a coalition government will need to be negotiated once the final votes are counted.

"All the scripts of the pasts are now outdated and a new script will

now be written in which the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan People's Party will be at the helm of national affairs in the future. The set-up will be without ... Pervez Musharraf. This is what Ms Benazir Bhutto used to call the 'revenge of democracy'," Professor Husain Haqqani, director of the International Relations Department at Boston University, told Asia Times Online by phone from Washington.

"In the end, Pakistanis voted against the arrogant Pakistani establishment," added Husain, a former diplomat and government minister who has spent many years in exile in the US.

Husain's comments notwithstanding, the establishment's role is still important. If the current administration, a key US ally in the region, can successfully manipulate the post-election scenario, a successful unity government with Musharraf as its leader is still a possibility.

The polls are showing clear defeats to many staunch supporters and close confidants of Musharraf, including former minister of defense Rao Sikandar Iqbal, former railways minister Sheikh Rashid, and Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain, president of the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q). Former government minister Sherafghan Malik and former foreign minister Khurshid Mehmood Qusuri also lost their seats, as did the PML-Q's candidate for premiership, Chaudhary Pervaiz Illahi, who lost his seat in central Punjab. These defeats of longstanding PML-Q leaders, many of whom had previously argued against including the PPP in a unity government, could ease the advent of a coalition government.

In Pakistan's largest province of Punjab, which constitutes 55% of the total 272 seats in the national assembly, former premier Sharif's PML-N made a miraculous showing. Despite Sharif and his brother, Shebaz Sharif, being barred from campaigning ahead of the vote, early counts showed the PML-N winning the majority of seats.

"The Pakistani establishment did attempt to manipulate the results but this can only be successful when the difference is between five and six percent. The ratio of difference between the losers and winners was so big that the establishment didn't get a chance to manipulate the results," prominent analyst Dr Ijaz Shafi Gillani told a Pakistani talk show. Gillani, who is also chairman of Gallup Pakistan, had found evidence in a pre-election poll that suggested the two opposition parties would sweep to victory.

On the morning of election day, Musharraf issued a statement in which he pledged his willingness to work in a coalition capacity with the winner. Analysts have been skeptical of the viability of his offer.

"I think this would not be so easy. He has been biased in favor of a particular party which has lost and therefore he won't be able to stay in power," said Husain.

The biggest upset occurred in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where voters reacted to the "Talibanization" of the region. The six-party religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) which swept 2002 elections on the basis of anti-American sentiments following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, was almost completely unseated by voters. The secular Pashtun sub-nationalist party, the Awami National Party, appears set to win a majority of seats in the province with other winners being mostly liberal, secular or moderate. The lack of support for the MMA clearly shows a lack of faith in the religious alliance's ability to thwart "Talibanization".

In Sindh province, the pro-Musharraf Muttehida Quami Movement (MQM) has swept elections in the urban centers but the rural areas have been won by the PPP. The day before the vote, the MQM changed its position on coalition governance and one of its top leaders, Dr Farooq Sattar, announced that his party is ready to work with PPP. In response, PPP Co-Chairman Asif Zardari said he would be open to working with the MQM as coalition partners.

"Whatever the results are, holding fair and free elections is a victory of the system. Especially against the militants who were aiming to sabotage the electoral process. However, I would call it the first stage of victory and not the final one. Of course, the challenge of militancy remains in Pakistan and now we have to deal with them with lot of caution," former minister of interior Aftab Sherpao told Asia Times Online after the elections.

Analysts claim that this year's election results clearly reflect popular sentiment in Pakistan. Contrary to past elections, family-based patronage, personal charisma, money and influence did not sway voters who instead voted along party lines and for political platforms.

In Punjab, however, the reasons for victory and defeat were completely different. In Rawalpindi, the 2007 government raid on the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) was the decisive factor for the PML-N's overwhelming defeat of the former ruling party. The brutality of the raid, including the arrest of a top cleric and at least 50 deaths, was the main issue of the election campaign in central Punjab.

In an interesting clash of personalities, the PML-N pitched its biggest anti-establishment icon, Javed Hashmi, who spent seven years in solitary confinement on charges of abetting military mutiny, against staunchly pro-establishment Sheikh Rashid, who has never lost in the past seven elections, in the cantonment town of Rawalpindi.

During the campaign, reporters often asked Sheikh why someone known as "the right hand man of Musharraf" didn't display a single photograph of the president. Sheikh replied that he was relying on in his personal charisma and the development work he had done for his people. Privately, however, he had been saying that he could not afford to be linked to Musharraf's legacy - especially after the Lal Masjid incident - and that's why he was trying to to distance himself. In any case, personal charisma failed to carry the day for and the ruling party was roundly defeated throughout Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

In Sindh province, sympathy and outrage over the assassination of Benazir Bhutto earned a crushing victory for the PPP.

The Pakistani establishment had no doubt read the writing on the electoral wall. Throughout the elections government leaders kept low profiles, often hiding themselves behind the curtains of power as they have been known to do in when faced with true democracy.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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