Pakistan after the Elections

A year ago, Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf, joined the "war on terrorism" after Al-Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

A year ago, Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf, joined the "war on terrorism" after Al-Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In so doing, he reversed field to end his country's support for the Taliban and to back the American-led campaign to oust the Islamic fundamentalists from power in Afghanistan. The Bush administration has been pleased with Musharraf's cooperation since then and U.S. officials publicly describe Pakistan as the "indispensable ally." But the results of Pakistan's October 10, 2002 elections raise doubts about how steady a partner Islamabad will prove in the future.

The unexpected electoral success of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of Islamic political parties, raises fresh concerns about U.S.-Pakistan relations. During the campaign, the MMA vociferously opposed Musharraf's alliance with Washington and the stationing of American forces in Pakistan. It urged a far larger role for Islam, asserting that Pakistan's failings stemmed from the country's ruling military and civilian elite‚s aping the West rather than following the teachings of Islam. In the past, religious parties had never won more than nine seats in the National Assembly. This time they garnered 44, gained a landslide victory in provincial polls in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and emerged as the largest party in Baluchistan.

The MMA's success in the October 10 polls, especially in the NWFP, where support underscored local unhappiness over the war in Afghanistan, could create serious problems for the ongoing struggle. It is fair to ask how vigorously the Musharraf government will be able to continue cooperation with the United States in hunting down Taliban and Al-Qaeda remnants in the face of opposition from the religious parties, some of which had close ties with the Taliban.

A related concern is the possibility that Islamic radicals from the NWFP might once more make common cause with their ethnic Pashtun brethren across the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan--as they did in opposing the Soviets in the 1980s and in supporting the Taliban in the mid-1990s. Many Afghan Pashtuns look askance at the American-backed Kabul government of Hamid Karzai. Even though Karzai is a Pashtun, they see his government as dominated by Tajiks from the Northern Alliance. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the virulently anti-American mujaheddin commander, is already stirring trouble in southeastern Afghanistan. If militant elements of the MMA were to join with disgruntled Afghan Pashtuns, American and coalition forces could face a more dangerous enemy than they have in recent months.

"Musharrafic democracy", as the influential Friday Times of Lahore has termed Pakistan's new political order, is an unsteady construct. The product of constitutional changes that Musharraf imposed as a military dictator, the arrangement lacks genuine legitimacy. The October 10 elections, which the European Union observer mission judged "seriously flawed", were hardly a resounding endorsement for the general. The polling failed to generate much enthusiasm among the public. According to unofficial tallies, only a third of the electorate bothered to cast a ballot. This was an even lower figure than the 35.7 percent of the eligible that voted in the 1997 elections.

The largest group in the new National Assembly with 77 seats is a breakaway faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML)--dubbed the "King's" party because it backs Musharraf. Despite the exile of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and government efforts to split her Pakistan Peoples Party, the PPP finished a strong second with 63 seats and emerged as the largest party in Sindh province. The big surprise was the success of the religious party alliance, the MMA, which came in third, electing 44 National Assembly members. The Muslim League faction supporting former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (who like Ms. Bhutto is in exile) fared badly, gaining only 14 seats. The remaining sixty plus seats were divided among independents and smaller parties.

In the wake of the election the prospects for political stability, a prerequisite if Pakistan is to address its grave economic and social problems, continue to be uncertain. Instead of a docile National Assembly dominated by pro-Musharraf elements, roughly half of the parliament--supporters of the MMA on the right and the PPP on the left--oppose the system that Musharraf has imposed on his country. Even though the composition of the new government is still unclear, it will almost certainly be led by the pro-Musharraf faction of the Muslim League.

Islamabad insists that Pakistan's foreign policy and its close ties with the United States will remain unchanged and, indeed, Musharraf and his military colleagues will continue to call the shots. Once the religious powers take power in the NWFP and possibly also in Baluchistan, however, they can be expected to press their stridently anti-American views. They will also have a new sounding board in the National Assembly for voicing disapproval to current policy.

Musharraf's clamping down on Islamic radicals after September 11, 2001 and his joining the "war on terrorism" against the Taliban were generally popular--except in the NWFP and Baluchistan. But public opinion--among the Pakistani elite as well as the common man--is strongly negative about the United States. Pakistanis still feel badly bruised by Washington‚s arms embargo during the 1965 India-Pakistan war and by the aid cutoff in 1990 after the Soviets left Afghanistan. Many are also deeply troubled by America's support for Israel against the Palestinians and believe that the United States is basically against the Muslim world. Should the United States go to war with Iraq, a major anti-American outburst must be expected in Pakistan.

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