Politics as Usual?

Positively in Pakistan, elections were held and main opposition parties are in talks to form a coalition. But if they don't learn from past mistakes, this attempt at democracy is also destined to fail.

As the presidency of General Pervez Musharraf enters what seem to be its last days, we need to keep one thing firmly in mind. It is that despite the Bush administration's support for Musharraf, it was also the Bush administration that did the most to destroy him, by forcing him into a subordinate role in a war on terror that most Pakistanis detest. It was not Musharraf's (very mild) "dictatorship," but the tag of "Busharraf" which originally crippled his domestic prestige. And if U.S. administrations are not careful, they will help destroy the next Pakistani administration and the one after that, until the country does indeed eventually become ungovernable.

This is something which has been largely-and one is tempted to say, deliberately-lost in much of the U.S. media's reporting of the "restoration of democracy" in Pakistan. For example, how many journalists have bothered to note that the original sparking point for the dispute between Musharraf and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury, which in turn began the process of Musharraf's fall, was Chaudhury's insistence that the government account for the fate of more than five hundred Islamist activists who have "disappeared" at the hands of the security forces?

On whose orders did they disappear? And where have some at least of them gone? These are issues on which the U.S. mainstream media is silent. If the next Pakistani government refuses to go along with the transfer of arrested international Islamists to U.S. custody without reference to the courts, will the U.S. media praise that too as a triumph of Pakistani democracy and the rule of law?

As Pakistani opinion polls since 9/11 demonstrate, it was Musharraf's enforced subservience to the United States more than anything else that shattered the prestige of Musharraf's administration-an administration that came to power in 1999 with massive public support, and which by (admittedly execrable) local standards, had delivered the best government Pakistan had experienced for more than a generation.

The fact that most Pakistanis loathe subservience to the United States and hate U.S. strategy in the "War on Terror" does not mean that they support the Islamists. The most encouraging aspect of the election results was the crushing defeat of the MMA Islamist coalition, which has ruled the Pashtun North West Frontier Province since 2002, at the hands of the Pashtun secular nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) and Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Let us hope that this result will lead to a diminution of the hysteria about the threat of an Islamist revolution in Pakistan seizing control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons-something that was never on the cards, unless the United States itself is crazy enough to attack Pakistan.

The MMA's defeat was largely a result of their failure to provide good government and deal with corruption; but it was also a clear sign that the majority of Pashtuns do not sympathise even with the mainstream Islamist parties, let alone with the pro-Taleban militants and terrorists, and that they are deeply opposed to the violence and unrest that the militants have unleashed in the Pashtun areas in recent months. That gives real hope for a stronger drive against the militants in the Pashtun areas, backed by real support from the local population.

For this to happen, however, various conditions are necessary. This must be seen as a Pakistani effort, carried out for Pakistani reasons, and not on the orders of the United States. The army and the politicians must work together. That will require that the army not work to undermine the coalition government and play its members off against each other, but it will also mean the parties accepting the reality that the Pakistani army will never "return to barracks," but will always play a key role in government. This is not simply because the army is the only really effective institution of the Pakistani state, but also because it will be quite impossible to get the military to fight against the extremists unless it is closely involved in the entire decision-making process.

Finally, the parties will have to work with each other. Neither at the provincial level in Peshawar nor at the national level in Islamabad has one party gained an absolute majority. In the North West Frontier Province, the ANP and PPP will have to form a coalition, just as the PPP and the Nawaz Sharif bloc will have to form a coalition at the national level. This coalition-building is well under way. But these parties will also have to work successfully together in government over a long period-and the whole of Pakistani history suggests that this will be extremely difficult.

Given the direct physical threat that Islamist terrorism now poses to Pakistan's political class, such cooperation would seem natural. And perhaps the Islamist threat has in fact changed the equations which continually divided Pakistan's mainstream parties in the past. While of course tragic, the death of Benazir Bhutto may also make it easier for the PPP to cooperate with other parties on a footing of equality, rather than asserting a sort of natural right to dominate them. Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif's room to maneuver will be limited by the eclipse of the Islamist parties who were his natural partners in government.

Perhaps this will be the case. But during my stay in Peshawar last May, a leading local PPP politician was assassinated; and the immediate response of PPP supporters was to blame not Islamist terrorists, but an ANP politician with whom he had had a family feud. And the PPP activists' form of protest was to burn vehicles, loot and destroy shops belonging to ANP supporters, and attack the police. Similar feuds are replicated across Pakistan.

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