Regulated democracy

Print edition : November 08, 2002

Amid charges of `pre-poll rigging' and state sponsorship of the religious Right, the `General' elections in Pakistan produce a hung Parliament.

OVER a week after the general elections, politics in the national capital of Pakistan has begun to look very much like that of the Uttar Pradesh capital of Lucknow after every election in the 1990s no one is in a position to stake his claim to form the government, no one agrees with anyone else, and yet everyone needs the other to survive a vicious numbers game.

Only here, not just the political parties but the President, Pervez Musharraf, too is a player. Is this not what the doctor, nay General, had ordered? Virtually every political leader worth his/her standing had alleged that the establishment had `ordered' a hung Assembly with the rebel Muslim Leaguers the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid), or the PML (Q), (nicknamed the King's party) as the single largest party. This precisely is the outcome of the verdict.

The game at the moment is to get the numbers right. With no party in a position to muster even a simple majority in the National Assembly of 272 members, every political leader is busy wooing everyone else. The serious ideological and personality differences that marked the run-up to the polls is a thing of the past. Permutations and combinations that were considered impossible until the other day are actually being discussed.

The question that is still being debated is whether it would be a combination of parties that should be at the helm of affairs or whether it should be a national government. What has complicated matters is the fact that elections were held not just for the National Assembly but for the legislatures of all the four provinces. In the North West Frontier Province, the six-party grouping of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), has managed a clear majority, but the elections in the provinces of Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan have produced a fractured mandate. Thus the alliance chemistry has to be right at both levels provincial and national.

The five important players do not appear to be teaming up at the national level without looking at the fate of the Provincial Assemblies. And then there are the ideological hassles. The MMA combine has won on the anti-American slogan and its inclusion, as a partner at the national level, cannot be without repercussions in foreign and defence policies.

The stunning success of the religious parties in the Frontier and Baluchistan, the resurgence of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in the Punjab, and the relegation of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or the PML (N), led by exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the third place, the rocking of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in its stronghold of Karachi where too the religious parties recovered some ground... Throughout the country, several traditional winners lost, contributing to a complex post-poll polity.

Pre-poll management paid off in many instances and created a problem for the managers in others. The turnout may eventually prove to be higher than the 1997 figure, largely because of the fairly brisk voting in the rural areas of Punjab and Sindh where the strategy of influencing local leaders and making many of them switch over to the PML(Q) apparently produced the ''desired'' results.

The largest single group to emerge from the allegedly pre-rigged elections was the PML(Q), with 77 seats. The Q Leaguers support the military government's constitutional amendments wholeheartedly. Their fait accompli: though they are the single largest party they still need the help of parties whose main campaign plank was `pre-poll rigging' by the military regime in favour of the Q League. The party being a splinter group of the PML (N) with 14 seats, it is only natural that this group detests the prospect of having these rebels at the helm of national affairs.

The Pakistan People's Party-Parliamentarian (PPP-P) led by Benazir Bhutto is the second largest party, with 62 seats. She was the first to announce the party's desire for any kind of `compromise' on the familiar theme of `national interest'.

A post-poll meeting of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD), which includes the PPP-P and the PML-N, decided not to have any truck with `pro-government parties for the formation of government', further diminishing the chances of any coalition between the two largest parties the PPP-P and the PML-Q.

But then the PPP-P and the PML(N) could come together. Are the two traditional rivals and long-term players of power politics ready to bury the hatchet? It appears that an influential section of Benazir's party is strongly opposed to this politics of `give and take' and is advocating the line of `let us sit in the opposition'.

AND now to the new phenomenon the religious Right which has just proved its might. With a combination of ethnic, religious and nationalistic factors as well as the policies of the United States contributing to its stunning seat tally, the MMA has won 45 seats, emerging as a major player and breaking the two-party pattern that has prevailed so far. This is the first time that six major religious parties, which combined in a first-ever electoral alliance in Pakistan, will have such a formidable presence in Parliament. The problem with the religious groups is not confined to the impact on foreign policy issues alone. Domestically it could deepen the divide between the moderates and the hard-liners.

The daily Dawn commented editorially: "There was a belief that, in its preoccupation with keeping both the PPP and the PML(N) from getting too close to forming a government, the administration had not only engineered the formation of the PML(Q) and supported it, but also may have thought that it would not be such a bad idea to help the MMA cut into the vote banks of the major parties. Now the establishment may be faced with the results of overkill and the federation with the challenge of a less than integrated pattern of policy-making and governance. A vacuum was created that has now been filled by the ultra-Right.''

One of the top leaders of the combine has asserted that there is no way it would be guided by the Musharraf laws and insisted on taking oath under the 1973 Constitution. Incidentally, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif's party are also opposed to President Musharraf's policies and committed to the 1973 Constitution as per the ARD but are with him in the fight against `international terrorism'.

The nature of difficulties ahead was evident when Fazal-ur-Rehman, secretary-general of the MMA and its prime ministerial candidate, repeated his opposition to the country's support for the U.S. war on terror and to the presence of U.S. troops on Pakistani soil. "America should realise that the people here have given their decision in a strong manner against whatever steps it has taken in Pakistan," he told a news briefing, after meeting leaders from the two other dominant parties.

On the social-cultural level, a prominent Jamaat-e-Islami women's leader announced in Peshawar that the MMA would abolish co-education and "politely" ask women to observe purdah. But she ruled out a Taliban-type government in the NWFP and vowed to uphold women's rights as per the Shariat.

However, in a typically deft move, the vice-president of the MMA and chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, said that Pakistan was passing through the most delicate stage of transition of power and his religio-political alliance would not create any situation that could derail the process. Speaking at a news conference, Qazi Sahib, as he is popularly known, said that his alliance would ensure that no chaotic or anarchic situation arose. He asked the world community not to draw any wrong conclusions from the election results if some people had decided to bring change in governance and tried to live their lives according to their faith.

He said the MMA believed that the amendments to the Constitution were subject to review by Parliament and if this was not done, the alliance would move the Supreme Court, without creating any conflict. He said: "We will demonstrate maximum flexibility in the larger interest of the nation but without compromising on principles."

In a strongly worded morning-after comment in The Friday Times, its editor Najam Sethi said:

"Thank you, General Pervez Musharraf, for delivering us from the likes of Nawaz Sharif and handing us over to Qazi Hussain Ahmad and Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

"MMA nominees from both the border provinces as well as from the Punjab will probably constitute half the members of the next Senate, or upper house, since each province has an equal number of representatives. That means that the Senate will become not just a springboard for the defence of provincial autonomy as it was meant to be but also for religious activism and orthodoxy, which certainly played no part in the dream of the Quaid-i-Azam to build a modern and moderate Pakistan.

"But there is a more cynical view that may gain currency. Maybe this is just what the establishment wanted. Two critical provinces bordering Afghanistan with the anti-America MMA so that the establishment can drive a hard bargain with Washington. And coalition governments in the other two provinces in which pro-establishment minorities or majorities can keep `democracy'in check. The armed and unarmed jehadis inside and outside the establishment should be pleased by the election results. Having `lost' Afghanistan, they have now acquired a large base area of their own in their own homeland. They couldn't have tailored a better outcome for themselves. That is why, in time to come, this `election' may acquire the same ominous significance in the history of Pakistan as the 1970 elections under another `sincere' military dictator."

The MQM won 13 seats and the National Alliance bagged 13. The two could play a role in both the scenarios of one of the larger parties looking for support and the other of a national government or a government of consensus being formed, which is the latest to be discussed in Islamabad.

After the initial round of consultations, the leader of Benazir's party, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, called for the setting up of a government of national consensus having representation from all the three main groups in the National Assembly. He said there was no dispute among the parties on the question of restoring democracy and strengthening elected institutions.

When asked what the common ground could be among the three major parties, which had diametrically opposite political views, for setting up a government of national consensus, Hamid Nasir Chattha said a number of constitutional and legal issues would have to be sorted out for taking the democratic process forward.

Mian Muhammad Azhar, president of the Q League who lost from two National Assembly seats in Lahore, expressed his party's support for the idea of a consensus government. Even the MMA is open to this suggestion.

Yet, the tailoring of democracy by the military establishment seems to be continuing. Even as the ARD expressed its opposition to the constitutional amendments introduced by the military establishment and renewed its commitment to the 1973 Constitution President Musharraf on October 17 amended the election laws with retrospective effect to allow independent MNA-elects three days' time to join any major political party of their choice after the Election Commission published their names in the winners' gazette.

This was the last move in a pattern of alleged constitutional tinkering and `pre-poll rigging' that, observers believe, created the political vacuum that ensured a fractured mandate, which in turn created a new niche for a religious Right, for the first time in Pakistan's electoral set-up.

Gen. Musharraf has reasons to be worried, particularly over the `anti-American' rhetoric of the MMA. But he is certainly not spending sleepless nights. He seems confident that he could handle the right-wingers. After all, the establishment knows them only too well.

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