The Praful Bidwai Column

Watershed verdict against Musharraf & Co

THE Pakistani people, long chided, cheated, and put down by military rulers, have emphatically affirmed their democratic sovereignty and delivered a stinging verdict against the ruling coalition headed by the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), a puppet of General Pervez Musharraf. They have also voted decisively against religious extremism.
The voter has severely punished PML(Q) stalwarts, including venal and shrewd politicians who belong to well-entrenched "political families" with strong clan and kinship connections. They know which side of the bread is buttered and typically win all elections -- no matter on whose ticket. Their ignominious defeat clarifies the verdict's central meaning.
The message for Musharraf is simple. He asked the people to vote for his supporters. They resoundingly rejected his appeal. If he has any sense, he should quit and roll back his recent decisions, including the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) of November last.
The election result totally disproves the doomsayers' view that Pakistan can never develop a democratic ethos. It has far-reaching implications for balances within Pakistan's state structures because it is a referendum against the Establishment, including the army, and a vote for democracy.
One cannot fail to be impressed by the strength of the anti-army sentiment in Pakistan, probably the most intense since the Bangladesh War. This is clearly linked to the military's misrule, corruption, greed, and links with United States agendas.
This sentiment coincides with the decision of army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani to sever the military's overt links with politics, withdraw army personnel from civilian jobs, and declare that the army would play no role in elections. This produced an election, which, despite flaws, was one of Pakistan's freest and fairest. The army refused to let Musharraf rig the polls.
This augurs well for the prospect of Pakistan's demilitarisation. Democrats everywhere must welcome this. If consolidated, the trend will lead to a historic breakthrough.
The election results have 5 noteworthy features. First, the people voted in a rational, discriminating and unsentimental way. They were not excessively swayed by "sympathy" for the Pakistan People's Party owing to Benazir Bhutto's assassination. They didn't give an overwhelming mandate to the PPP or the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).
Second, the PPP won 88 of the National Assembly's 272 elected seats. Besides its traditional stronghold, Sindh, it also did well in the North-West Frontier Province and southern Punjab. The PML(N) won 66 seats -- surpassing expectations -- because of its strong anti-Musharraf stand. This outcome, like the provincial assembly results, reaffirms the federal character of Pakistan's polity.
Third, the popular mandate favours a PPP-PML(N) coalition, which also carries other parties like the Mohajir-dominated Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and Afsandyar Wali Khan's Awami National Party.
Fourth, the public is disillusioned with religious extremists. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which won 56 NA seats in 2002, suffered a stunning defeat, winning just 5 seats. This vindicates the view that the 2002 election was exceptional because it followed the US invasion of Afghanistan. Until then, religious extremists only commanded under 3 percent of the vote.
The MMA suffered a big setback in the NWFP assembly. It managed to bag a pathetic 8 seats (of 96). By contrast, the secular, left-leaning ANP won 29 seats and the PPP 18. In Balochistan too, the MMA's tally fell from 12 to 7 seats (total, 51).
The MMA's rout undermines Musharraf's claim, often bought by the West, that he is the sole bulwark against the mullahs, in particular, the possibility that they might gain control over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
And fifth, a PPP-PML (N)-led alliance offers the best chance to address two urgent tasks; a decisive break with military rule, and provincial autonomy. The first is a precondition for democratisation. Without the second, the state's existence may be in jeopardy, given the autonomist/secessionist movements in Balochistan, the NWFP and tribal agency areas, and resentment in Sindh at Punjab's excessive weight in government and politics.
A broad-horizon agenda awaits the next government. To fulfil it, the PPP and PML(N) must reach a power-sharing arrangement which recognises, but goes beyond, their different social bases and regional characteristics. It means the PPP leadership under Asif Ali Zardari must firmly rule out a deal with Musharraf or the PML(Q), which legitimises the old order and prolongs the military's dominance.
Zardari, implicated in corruption cases, is vulnerable to pressure and manipulation by Musharraf and the US. He hasn't ruled out "cooperation" with Musharraf. Nor has he demanded the restoration of the judges dismissed under the November PCO.
There is an outer chance that Zardari will be tempted to try one of those super-opportunistic cut-and-paste jobs for which Pakistani politicians have gained notoriety -- for instance, by stitching together a coalition between his party and elements from the discredited PML(Q).
That would completely violate the popular mandate, and make a mockery of the democratic norm that a ruling party defeated in an election should not be part of the next coalition government. It will almost certainly split the PPP and isolate Zardari. He must desist from that terrible course.
Pakistan, today, stands at a crossroads, similar to the turning point after the birth of Bangladesh. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto then squandered a precious opportunity to free Pakistan from the stranglehold of the army, which got discredited because it lost the war. He chose to collude with the army, and promoted Gen Zia-ul Haq, who hanged him and plunged Pakistan into the Dark Ages.
One can only hope that Bhutto's son-in-law doesn't repeat his (Bhutto's) blunder by bestowing legitimacy on Musharraf and inviting the army to play a larger-than-life role just when it is withdrawing from politics.
The immediate priority is to rescind the November PCO, restore Chief Justice Choudhry and other dismissed judges, and cancel Musharraf's arbitrary decrees.
The world must respect the Pakistani people's verdict, and look beyond Musharraf. He's nobody's "best bet in Pakistan." Equally important, both Zardari and Sharif support the India-Pakistan peace process. It now may have a wider constituency in Pakistan than Musharraf. This is good news for India-Pakistan relations and for the prospect of a peaceful, prosperous South Asia.

Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian columnist.