Musharraf’s Party Roundly Defeated; Fundamentalist Coalition Collapses in NWFP; PPP Likely to Form Next Government

Pakistan held its elections on Monday, which are fateful for the future of the country and also probably for the Bush-Cheney foreign policy. Bush and Cheney put most of their eggs in the basket of a military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, who has been on a self-destructive downward spiral during the past year that makes Amy Winehouse look level-headed.

By 2:20 am on Tuesday, out of 241 districts reporting, The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was shaping up as the biggest bloc in the federal parliament, with 80 seats (33% of those in districts reporting) so far. The PPP had been led by slain politician Benazir Bhutto, but did not benefit from a sympathy vote to the extent that some observers had expected.

The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)–the PMLN–loyal to Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, had won 64 seats(26.5%).

The other branch of the Muslim League, named “Q,” had to that point done very poorly, winning only 37 seats (15%). Q supported Pervez Musharraf, the general who made a 1999 coup and who recently became a civilian president under irregular circumstances.

The Pakistan People’s Party is relatively secular and slightly left of center. The Muslim League-N is right of center but traditionalist rather than fundamentalist (i.e. it is not militant, does not have imposition of Islamic canon law as its primary goal, does not require women to veil, etc. It is just Muslim big landlords and middle classes of Punjab and reflects their conservatism and traditionalism. Think rural Mexican Catholicism).

There are 272 directly-elected seats in the Pakistani National Assembly (the lower house). Once you add in women and minorities, there are 342. But those extra seats not directly elected are filled proportionally from parties in accordance with their proportion of the elected seats. So you can tell who won and who is powerful by looking at the 272.

The Pakistan People’s Party may end up the largest party, with a plurality, but may need a coalition partner to form a government. Despite the rivalry between PPP and PMLN, the two could challenge their common enemy, President Pervez Musharraf, by making common cause. If current trends continue, even those two will not have the seats to impeach Musharraf, a move that would also require a majority in the 100-seat appointed senate, where Musharraf retains many PMLQ seats.

At the provincial level, the election showed Pakistan’s public fragmented along ethnic and linguistic lines. The Sindh Provincial Assembly will be dominated by the Pakistan People’s Party. Sindh’s largest city, Karachi, with its Urdu-speaking majority, will likely be dominated by the MQM (Muttahidah Qawmi Movement), a secular mass party representing Urdu-speakers that had been cooperating with Musharraf.

Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province (some 60% of the whole), went heavily for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PMLN. Its leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, is a steel magnate from the echt Punjabi city of Lahore.

The North-West Frontier Province, with its predominately Pushtun population, was captured by the Awami National Party, a secular, Pushtun-nationalist bloc, with the PPP likely a coalition partner there.

The results at the level of the federal parliament are a stunning defeat for Musharraf and track well with recent opinion polling in Pakistan, which showed only a 15% favorability rating for Musharraf and in which 70% of respondents said he should step down. Musharraf destroyed his popularity by dismissing the chief justice of the supreme court last spring and then by frontally invading a militant mosque in Islamabad last summer. He also appears to have been widely blamed for the conditions that allowed Benazir Bhutto (leader of the PPP) to be assassinated Dec. 27 and for the subsequent days of violence.

Another big loser in the election was the religious Right. The violence of the Red Mosque cultists and the bombings by Muslim militants after it was invaded really turned off Pakistanis from all accounts. This fall from favor is summarized by Dawn:

‘According to the poll results, only 24 per cent of Pakistanis approved of Osama when the survey was conducted last month [January 2008], compared with 46 per cent during a similar survey in August [2007].

Backing for Al Qaeda fell to 18 per cent from 33 per cent.

Support for the Taliban dropped by half to 19 per cent from 38 per cent, the results said.”

(Note that those Pakistanis who say they admire Bin Laden or al-Qaeda typically deny that they were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, so it isn’t that they are necessarily militants or pro-terrorism; they are just duped by the religious Right into thinking that al-Qaeda is innocent. In any case, the scales seem to be falling from their eyes big time).

The six-party religious coalition, the Islamic Action Council (Muttahidah Majlis-i `Amal), which had ruled the strategically important Northwest Frontier Province, fell apart late last fall. Among its major components, the Jama’at-i Islami, decided to boycott the elections. Another major element, the Jami’at `Ulama-yi Islam (Fazlur Rahman) won only 12 seats in the provincial assembly of the NWFP yesterday. And so the religious coalition has become a small minority in the NWFP, which it ruled with an iron hand for over 5 years, and where it attempted various ruses to sidestep federal law and declare sharia or Islamic canon law in that province. Obviously, chasing away Peshawar’s great singers and coddling extremists has not played well with the NWFP public, which is majority Pushtun (or as they say in Pakistan, Pathan).

The Awami National Party, a secular Pushtun nationalist party, swept to power with 29 seats. The secular, left of center Pakistan People’s Party won 14 seats, more than the Muslim fundamentalists. Many independents won, 20 in all, and so they will be an important swing vote.

The turn of the Pathans (Pushtuns) of Pakistan to religious fundamentalist parties in 2002 is thus shown to have been a fluke. I think it had two causes. First, Gen. Musharraf interfered with the PPP and PMLN parties’ election campaigns, weakening them. Second, the US had overthrown the Taliban, who were Pushtuns, and a lot of Pushtuns on the Pakistani side of the border interpreted the Afghanistan War as a superpower assault on a Pushtun government on behalf of Tajiks, Hazara Shiites and Uzbeks (the “northern alliance.”)

But the fluke is over.

Major figures in the NWFP government of the MMA had denied that al-Qaeda exists. I think it may now be easier to catch the bad guys, though it is also true that the fight against the Pakistani Taliban and their international jihadi allies has been primarily pursued by the federal government, so the ambivalence of NWFP civilian officials may not have much impeded the fight.

Bottom line, the Pakistani public has demonstrated a dislike of extremism, including religious extremism, awarding a plurality of seats in the national legislature to secular parties and the rest to right-of-center parties, but roundly rejecting the fundamentalists.

Even though the PPP and PMLN likely won’t have the votes to impeach Musharraf, he is in for a bumpy ride and it would be much better for everyone if he would recognize the writing on the wall and step down.