More On Pakistani Elections There Is

More on Pakistani Elections

There is increasing speculation in the Pakistani press that of the 272 seats in the Pakistani parliament, nearly half (around 120) will go to the Muslim League (QA), led by Mian Azhar. This wing of the Muslim League represents itself as hearkening back to the secular principles of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Qa’id-i A`zam. It has taken positions close to those of General Musharraf, and the other parties accuse it of positioning itself as the “King’s Party,” such that it is being given preferential treatment by the government.

Analysts suggest that the Muslim League (QA) will be able to form a government in coalition with some supportive smaller parties. One might be the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a secularist nationalist party for Urdu-speaking Muhajirs in Sindh province.

Journalist Nusrat Javeed has reported that Musharraf’s pollsters are projecting that the Pakistan People’s Party, led by Makhdum Amin Fahim, will gain 55-60 seats in the initial elections, which will be augmented proportionally when the appointed seats for women and minorities are added in.

Such a result would put the Pakistan People’s Party (traditionally populist-left in rhetoric but often led by big landlords) in the opposition. Likewise the rump Muslim League (N), which remains loyal to former PM Nawaz Sharif (who, however, remains in exile in Saudi Arabia).

A Muslim League (QA) coalition with the MQM would be strongly secular in orientation and generally supportive of Musharraf policies. Even Mian Azhar, however, insists that the prime minister and not the president should chair the new National Security Council, on which the heads of the military branches will serve, and which will have the right collectively to dismiss parliament. The danger is that both the PPP and the Muslim League (N) continue to have major support, and if they feel too far marginalized they might resort to street politics, with demonstrations that could turn violent. Javeed observes, however, that there have been elections in the recent past in which the PPP has done no better in terms of seats won, if her projections are valid, so that there are not strong grounds for resentment.

(In reply I would suggest that resentment is inevitable, since the PPP leader Benazir Bhutto was excluded from running, and since there is a widespread feeling that Musharraf is throwing the election to the Muslim League (QA).)

In the past, the small fundamentalist religious parties have never gotten more than 5% of the seats in parliament, and in 1997 they did so poorly as to be virtually left with no effective voice there. Some analysts are suggesting that they may make a comeback in this election. If they got 5% of the seats, that would be only about 13. But some say they will get over 20, heading toward an unprecedented 10%, and that many of their victories will occur in the Pushtun-dominated Northwest Frontier Province. One analyst suggested that they may even be able to take the NWF provincial government. They are united as the Muttahida Majlis-i `Amal or United Working Council.

The Jamaat-i Islami leader Qazi Hussein Ahmad (himself a Pushtun) predicts that if the Americans are rattling loud sabres against Iraq at the time of the elections, the MMA may do even better.

An MMA victory for the fundamentalists in the Northwest Frontier Province would have extremely negative consequences for US security. This is the region in which many al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants are hiding out, and is a potential base for striking at US troops in Afghanistan and against the Karzai government. The MMA is pro-Taliban and virulently anti-American. Qazi Hussein Ahmad denies that al-Qaeda even exists. A hostile provincial government could seriously impede continued US and Pakistani efforts at counter-insurgency in this region.

My own analysis is that Pushtuns are divided over religious politics, with many resenting the disaster the Taliban led people into. The MMA lost very badly last winter, given the thoroughgoing American victory. Resentments may help them win more seats than usual, especially in the NWFP, but I suspect that they will have more difficulty dominating the province than analysts realize.