So far so good | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 03, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 03, 2008

So far so good

THE aftermath of Pakistan's February 18 parliamentary election has created hope of ending Pakistan's political dysfunction. The voters overwhelmingly rejected supporters of General (retired) Pervez Musharraf at the polls, and the leaders of the country's major political parties have agreed to work together to build a democratic political order.
Pakistan's politicians have clearly scored a major victory against what is euphemistically called "the establishment" in Pakistan. But the battle between "the establishment" and the politicians is far from over.
Musharraf has yet to understand that his rejection by the people requires him to either step down or, at least, accept a diminution of his role. Musharraf might mistakenly see the election results as comparable to the victory of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in the 1988 polls held immediately after the death of General Ziaul Haq.
Then, Ziaul Haq's successor Ghulam Ishaq Khan retained considerable influence as president, even after Ms Bhutto became prime minister, and eventually used Zia's constitutional amendments to overthrow the elected government. But in 1988, Pakistan's establishment had not been as thoroughly discredited as it is now.
President Ghulam Ishaq Khan benefited from being different from Ziaul Haq, the hated dictator. The army remained politically engaged, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) had little experience of the establishment's maneuvers, and the pro-Zia politicians retained considerable political strength.
This time, the country's major political parties have agreed on a common minimum platform that aims at restoring the Pakistani constitution, rehabilitating its judiciary, and moving towards national reconciliation. The army appears to have decided to pull out of politics.
The nation and the international community have little stomach for covert political manipulation at a time when Pakistan faces a serious threat from terrorists.
That said, "the establishment," made up of politicised generals, intelligence officials, and Pakistan's managerial class -- bankers, civil servants, some overseas businessmen, World Bank beneficiaries, and former or current IMF employees -- will not give up easily.
Soon there will be rumours of corruption and mismanagement to discredit the elected leadership, and a concerted effort to create rifts among them.
So far, PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari and the PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif have shown that the politicians have learnt from the experience of the 1990s. Mr. Zardari, in particular, has emerged as a statesman, in contrast with the demonisation to which he was subjected for being married to Mohtarma Bhutto, Pakistan's most popular anti-establishment politician.
The priority of Pakistan's establishment has been to create a centralised state, focused on the perceived threat from India, with the help of the United States. American assistance is obtained by allying with Washington's strategic concern of the day, which, in turn, has led to over-engagement by the military on several fronts.
Many of Pakistan's problems, such as the influence of jihadi extremists and difficult relations with Afghanistan and India, can be traced to the ascendancy of strategic military doctrine at the expense of domestic stability and democratic decision-making.
All that could now change if the army stays its new course of disengagement from politics and the politicians can work together rather than against each other.
A future government of national unity led by elected politicians should try and end the political role of the intelligence services. For too long, an all powerful intelligence community has run -- and most observers would agree, ruined -- Pakistan by fixing elections, dividing parties and buying-off politicians.
If the politicians prevail, the war against terrorism would be fought to eliminate out of control jihadi groups previously nurtured or tolerated by the Pakistani state, not to secure additional funding from the United States.
An elected Pakistani government might be less amendable, say, to requests for rendition of Pakistani citizens. But it would almost certainly be interested in rooting out al-Qaeda and stopping cross-border Taliban terrorism in Afghanistan.
The civilians would also seek a clearer strategy against militant Talibanisation within Pakistan, particularly because they have a clear popular mandate in the form of electoral rejection of Islamists.
The PPP leadership and the PML-N also seem to agree on normalisation of relations with India, and this time there is little likelihood that either side would paint the other as being "soft" on India.
After initial confrontation, even Musharraf has come around to managing a relatively quiet relationship with Pakistan's larger South Asian neighbour, making it difficult for the establishment to play the India card to discredit popular politicians.
During the run-up to the recent elections, none of the major political parties highlighted Pakistan's dispute with India over Kashmir. That raises expectations of a political consensus on developing normal relations with India without insisting on prior resolution of the Kashmir issue.
In the past, any politician seeking friendly ties with India has faced criticism from rivals, prodded by the establishment, seeking to tap into anti-India sentiment within Pakistan.

Husain Haqqani, Director of Boston University's Center for International Relations, is Co-Chair of the Hudson Institute's Project on Islam and Democracy. He is the author of the Carnegie Endowment book Pakistan Between Mosque and Military (2005), and served as an adviser to former prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.

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