The results of Pakistan’s October 10 elections to the national and provincial assemblies—the first such contests since Gen. Pervez Musharraf grabbed power in a bloodless coup in 1999—seem to have surprised many observers both within and outside the country. On election night and the morning after, US media commentary focused on the gains made by the coalition of Pakistani Islamist groups, the Muttahida Majlis-I-Amal (MMA). Not only did the Islamists garner approximately a third of the seats in the National Assembly, but they also won a definitive majority in Sarhad (Northwest Frontier Province) and a majority of seats in the southwestern province of Baluchistan.

Commentators also pointed to the fact that no party won an outright majority in the votes cast for the National Assembly. The Pakistan Muslim League (Q), an 18-month old party backed by Musharraf and the army, gathered the most votes, but nowhere near enough to form its own government. Musharraf’s supporters will have to form a coalition with one of the four main parties that also won seats at the national level: the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Islamist coalition, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and/or independents.

Since the elections, leaders in the MMA have made headlines in the West by pledging to “implement an Islamic system” in Pakistan and demanding that US soldiers pursuing Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in the northwest province leave the country. The MMA’s victory in Sarhad does indeed reflect dissatisfaction with the Musharraf regime’s alignment with the US in the war in Afghanistan and the ongoing “war on terrorism,” as well as militancy in the struggle between Pakistan and India over the contested province of Kashmir. But Pakistani Islamists’ rebuke of Musharraf and the US is only part of the story of the October 10 polling, and the success of the MMA in Sarhad and Baluchistan is not simply a byproduct of events since September 11, 2001.

Fractured Polity

The historical roots of the Islamists’ electoral strength trace back to ethnic identification between the Pashtuns on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the involvement of segments of the population in the border zone in the first US intervention in Afghanistan—the Reagan administration’s bankrolling, with the Saudis and the Pakistani military, of an anti-Soviet jihad in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But more recent catalysts for the MMA’s success were the May 2002 referendum that extended Musharraf’s presidency by five years and constitutional “reforms” two months later that further enhanced the power of the military in Pakistani politics. Both of these measures made a sham of Pakistan’s electoral process, producing voter apathy which has benefited the groups coalesced under the MMA rubric.

Many voters who might otherwise have gone to the polls became convinced that the elections were nothing but a mask for continued military power. The Islamist groups, on the other hand, followed their historical tendency to choose moments when democracy has been weak or non-existent to mobilize for additional clout within the state, in this instance through the electoral process. Some political commentators inside Pakistan would add an additional explanatory factor: corruption among the leadership of the four major non-Islamist parties which oppose Musharraf’s regime. By this reading, only the “easily intelligible slogans” of the religious parties spoke to the average person’s economic plight. The combination of consolidated military rule and the inadequacy of the alternatives created the space for the religious parties to far exceed any mandate they had previously achieved in the electoral history of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the provincial assembly vote demonstrates clearly the fracturing of politics in Pakistan. While the MMA swept the northern and southwestern provinces, the PML(Q) dominates in the Punjab, the backbone of the Pakistani state since independence. Punjab, the most prosperous province, sees itself—mythologically—as resting above party or sectarian politics. Anti-Indian chauvinist rhetoric is strong, as is support for the military. In Sindh, the Pakistan People’s Party, though without its most famous politician, ex-President Benazir Bhutto, won a significant number of votes, followed by the Muttahida Quami Mahaz (MQM). The southwestern province of Baluchistan—site of a vibrant and radical left-wing movement in the 1970s—has undergone a huge demographic shift since Pakistan’s involvement alongside the US in the first Afghan intervention in the 1980s, with Pashtuns gaining in numbers. Pro-Taliban forces within Pakistan have used this region to gain a foothold in Afghanistan.

Suggestive Results

Two things become evident from these results: first, the nationality question, which has plagued Pakistan since its inception in 1947, is alive and well today. Does the average Pakistani identify with the nation-state or with a particular, more localized nationality? Is the average person Pakistani first or Pashtun or Baluchi? The nationality question created the split between West and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and continues to inflect present-day politics. The October 10 elections suggest that there are now two contenders for the national (all-Pakistani) mantle, the MMA and the pro-Musharraf PML(Q), promoting two competing notions of national identity which exist side by side—one overtly religious, the other latently so, with both propounding authoritarian and anti-democratic visions of the state and its relation to civil society. The notion of identity which the military dictator Zia ul Haq sought to promulgate in the 1970s, whereby the religious elements dominated, but did not compete with, either the religiosity or authoritarianism of the regime, may have ruptured.

Second, many Pakistanis of all political persuasions are in fact fed up with the corruption of the regimes during and since the era of Zia ul Haq. In the electoral campaign, both the PML(N), the party of deposed President Nawaz Sharif, and the PPP were rightly seen as more interested in holding onto power than in sharing it, and unable to bring about meaningful change. Since progressive groups on the left have either been forcefully repressed (especially under Zia), or thrown their support behind Benazir Bhutto in the misguided belief that her party would contain the Islamist elements, the ballot presented no viable alternative for Pakistani voters. Even the PPP and PML(N) collaborated with the religious elements, as demonstrated by the close links between the Pakistani military and religious groups throughout the tenure of these parties in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Guided Democracy”

Every Pakistani military regime has justified its intervention in politics with promises to “clean up” the mess created by previous civilian governments. When the military came to power under Musharraf, capital flight had drained the economy of resources, and inflation was soaring. As in the past, the military’s seizure of power further destabilized the economy at first. It also aroused anxiety among Pakistanis about another prolonged period of military rule. Musharraf’s regime tried to allay concerns on both counts. To address the economic issues, the regime set up the feared National Accountability Board, which has successfully recovered monies that had been taken out of the country by threatening state reprisal as well as by actual prosecutions. Musharraf also promised to hold elections within three years, forming the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB) under the direction of a military officer. These measures explain the support initially enjoyed by Musharraf and his fellow generals when they came to power three years ago.

Ostensibly, the NRB was set up to “guide” Pakistan back to “democracy.” But it was clear by 2000 that the model of democracy envisioned by the Musharraf regime was limited. Elections held for various local bodies did not permit the participation of political parties. This measure, it was suggested, would enable local figures unconnected to existing party power structures to emerge, thereby strengthening local participation and more closely reflecting local concerns. But predictably, this system of representation reflected and reproduced local hierarchies, more often than not favoring the economically powerful. Musharraf’s local bodies system closely resembles the system of “Basic Democracies” introduced by the first military regime in Pakistan under Ayub Khan. Most political activists in Pakistan view Khan’s system has having laid the groundwork for assaults on genuine democratic process. Existing bureaucratic and military interests are enhanced at the expense of politics itself.

More recently, the NRB shepherded two more regime initiatives into being: the May referendum and the constitutional amendments of July. The referendum in particular led to a precipitous decline, although not a total collapse, in Musharraf’s popularity; it was seen as a ruse to stay in power, analogous to similar schemes pursued by Zia ul Haq. Unlike Zia, however, Musharraf actually had a certain measure of popular support—not only because of his stance against militant Islamic groups after September 11, but because earlier he had tried to do away with the blasphemy laws introduced by Nawaz Sharif. Many Pakistanis apparently hoped that what could not be achieved politically—through mass agitation against the draconian legislation—could be achieved by military fiat, though the same military had begun the process of the country’s Islamization in the first place. The blasphemy laws are still on the books.

Musharraf, Voice of Reason

In 1984, Zia ul Haq ran a referendum which asked “whether the people of Pakistan endorse the process initiated by…the President of Pakistan, for bringing laws in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and for the preservation of the ideology of Pakistan, and for the continuation and consolidation of the smooth and orderly transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people?” In 2002, Musharraf’s referendum question read: “Do you want to elect President Musharraf as President of Pakistan for the next five years for: survival of local government system; restoration of democracy; continuity and stability of reforms; eradication of extremism and sectarianism, and the accomplishment of the Quaid-e-Azam’s concept?” Language of reform and modernity aside, most Pakistanis understood the referendum as a way for Musharraf to extend his tenure as both president and army chief, and also to create a constitutional role for the army in government decision-making.

Mounting domestic criticism following the referendum drive led the military to fall back on constitutional amendments dictating the parameters under which elections would be held. Again, a facade of democracy was maintained: the amendments were introduced with great fanfare on July 10, ostensibly for public debate and revision, but few changes were made in the text. The constitutional amendments gave Musharraf the right to dismiss the elected parliament. They created a military-dominated National Security Council with the power to override measures undertaken by future civilian governments. While Musharraf claims to stand for “progress” and “sustainable democracy,” his regime’s initiatives exhibit curious similarities to the stated beliefs of British colonial overlords and Zia ul Haq that “pure” democracy does not suit Pakistan. Rather, the responsible ruler appoints himself to establish a political system that “suits” the needs of the country. The same military that encouraged the growth of radical Islamism to support its covert wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir now positions itself as the voice of reason and rationality.

Party of Order

Though the election results are a repudiation of Musharraf, in the short term, the constitutional amendments clearly continue military interference in politics. Following the Turkish model for which Musharraf repeatedly expresses admiration, the regime will pose as the defender of a modernist government in Pakistan to justify consolidation of its authority, a project which the MMA’s pronouncements in favor of introducing Islamic law throughout the country can only facilitate. (Notably, Musharraf’s first foreign visit after the October 10 polls landed him in Turkey.) The divided government and lack of national consensus indicated by the election results is in fact precisely what the military would like. Posing yet again, as the party of order, the military can return to direct rule whenever it sees fit.

These deeper dynamics argue against single-minded fixation on the MMA’s victory in the Pakistani elections as a bad omen for the “war on terror.” The unfolding farce in Pakistan, once again, postpones the ability of the Pakistani electorate to pick its own leaders, to conduct its own politics (however messily) and to resolve issues of internal dissension and ethnic difference. Narrow focus on Islamist calls to oust US Special Forces misses sources of dissent—especially military interference in politics—that bode ill both for US-Pakistani relations and for progressive internal transformations in Pakistan.

How to cite this article:

Shahnaz Rouse "Elections in Pakistan," Middle East Report Online, October 18, 2002.

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