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10-21-02: News Abroad

Why Those Election Results in Pakistan Are Frightening

by Juan Cole

The results of the elections held in Pakistan on October 10 have cast a shadow over the Bush administration’s foreign policy. That policy has been driven by contradictory impulses — curbing Islamic extremism, promoting democracy, beating the drums of war, and supporting dictatorial regimes friendly to the United States. The Pakistani electorate has pointed out the inconsistencies.

When we hear that Iraqis will “dance in the streets” on being liberated by American forces, we should remember that members of the Pushtun ethnic group in Pakistan have not celebrated the fall of the Taliban. When we hear that it may be necessary for the US to impose a strong ruler on Iraq initially, in preparation for democracy, we should remember that the Pakistani electorate has resoundingly rejected strongman Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.

When we hear that it is a good idea to overthrow and marginalize the secular nationalist regimes of the Middle East, we should remember Pakistan. There, sidelining the Pakistan People’s Party and the mainstream Muslim League gave an opening to fundamentalists and radical Islamists who look kindly on al-Qaeda.

When we hear that a US-shaped democratic Iraq will be a beacon to the rest of the Middle East, we should remember that a democratizing Pakistan has largely returned anti-American candidates. They oppose an Iraq war and are bitter about what they see as US backing for Israeli PM Ariel Sharon’s brutal repression of the Palestinians. European Union observers criticized the election as rigged toward pro-government candidates, so that the electorate may be even more bitterly anti-American and anti-Musharraf than the results show.

The Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan will be ruled by a coalition of fundamentalist Muslim parties, the Islamic Action Council (Urdu acronym: MMA). They are, as well, the largest bloc in the provincial assembly of Baluchistan. This coalition emerged as the third largest bloc in the national parliament, winning around 45 seats out of 272 contested. They were able overwhelmingly to attract Pushtun voters upset with the U.S. attack on Afghanistan. The religious parties had only won two seats in parliament in the 1997 elections.

The elections returned a hung parliament, so that one of the more secular parties may need to bring the MMA in to form a ruling coalition. Musharraf much weakened the mainstream politicians by deriding them as corrupt. Worrisomely, the fundamentalist parties may form a crucial swing vote on some issues in a divided parliament. They have already announced that they will attempt to end coeducation in schools, including universities (implying that women in the Northwest Frontier will have to go to small, inadequate women’s institutes for any higher education they are allowed to seek).

The leaders of the fundamentalist parties had campaigned vigorously in winter of 2002 against the U.S. war in Afghanistan. They had called for the overthrow of Musharraf. Among their leaders, Qazi Hussein Ahmad has called for an end to the manhunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban elements hiding out in the Northwest Frontier, since they are “Muslim brethren.” The religious parties want US troops and FBI agents kicked out of Pakistan.

The United States cannot win its goals in the Muslim world merely by main force. Its support of democracy will have to be wholehearted if instability of the Pakistani sort is to be avoided. How will General Musharraf cohabit with a parliament largely hostile to him? The idea bruited in Washington circles of imposing a new Hashemite king on Iraq, always hare-brained, looks especially unwise in the aftermath of the Pakistan elections.

In the new democracies it says it is fostering, the Bush administration will have to court constituencies. It cannot turn a blind eye to global flash points like Palestine and Kashmir, where Muslims feel they are being massacred and repressed. It cannot identify itself with dictators. It cannot allow the marginalization by those dictators of secular, populist parties. It cannot afford to be seen as an aggressor acting unilaterally against a Muslim country. The need for strong U.N. Security Council backing for any Iraq war is even more urgent now.

The Pakistan election results should be a wake-up call to the Bush administration.

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