After many delays, and no further unanticipated crises that could be used as excuses for further delays, Pakistan held its latest long awaited round of national elections on Feb 18. Their outcome has been a pleasant surprise to almost everyone who has harbored an opinion about where Pakistani politics may be headed following the furor over Benazir Bhutto's assassination and the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism emanating from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Waziristan.
Most observers were asking whether anything remotely resembling constitutional democracy and civil society could come from these elections. Now the answer is here. Thus far it seems that prophecy has failed, and the results bode well not only for the political future of Pakistan but also for the region generally. The elections were remarkably peaceful; there is no credible evidence of the "massive rigging" which even the country's Attorney General, Malik Qayyum, is alleged to have predicted would be the case.
Yes, there may have been a bit of ballot box skullduggery here and there, but probably no more than is alleged to have taken place in the last two American presidential elections. Despite hints and allegations that President Pervez Musharraf would never accept an outcome that would work to his disadvantage, the general publicly declared, "Whatever the result, we will accept it with grace. He pledged to work with whoever becomes prime minister "in a reconciliatory mode".
None of this guarantees, of course, that the aftermath of the elections will be all sweetness and light. Unforeseen demons can always arise to spoil the party. Yet, it cannot be denied that the outcome of these elections, and the atmosphere of reconciliation which has accompanied them, suggests that after a long history of social turmoil, Pakistan may have turned some kind of political corner. It may turn out to be, in Arnaud de Borchgrave's (UPI Editor at Large) words, "the first step in bringing a dysfunctional nuclear power back to democratic stability."
The results have all the earmarks of the kind of constitutionally structured politics which I have called the 'South Asian consensual model'. Two major political parties - the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) - have emerged at the centre, each with its own ideological and programmatic slants to be sure, but neither infected with stridently extremist doctrinal agendas. The leaders of both parties (Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif), despite their past antipathies, are publicly committed to forming a coalition government pledged to ameliorate the country's social ills instead of exacerbating them. All this seems unprecedented in the Pakistani political firmament.
A similar process appears to be under way in the four provincial assemblies where, like the centre, no single party achieved a majority of seats and, consequently, coalitions will need to be assembled if the government is to go forward. In the Punjab, Nawaz Sharif's political base, the PML-N with 102 assembly seats, the PPP with 75, Musharraf's PML-Qaid (PML-Q) with 61 seats, plus independents with 35, constitute the raw material from which some kind of ruling majority can plausibly be fashioned. In Sindh, Benazir's home state, the PPP with 64 seats enjoys an almost two-to-one advantage over the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) (38 seats) and will be compelled to forge a working relationship of some kind either with the latter or with some other combination of independents (six seats), the PML-Q (nine seats), and the PML-N (four seats). According to Dawn (Feb 20), Balochistan may be the "saving grace" for the PML-Q with 17 seats out of 51 plus a patchwork of lesser parties - the PPP (7 seats), the Awami National Party (ANP- two seats) - and 12 independents with whom bargains can be struck. Finally, the NWFP is also in play for achieving a moderate governing coalition after extremist groups there were virtually wiped out in the elections. Led by the ANP (29 seats), whose platform formally espouses a federal polity, possible coalition partners include the PPP (17 seats), the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA- 11 seats), PML-N (six seats), PML-Q (six seats), PPP-Sherpao (five seats) and 22 independents.
Contrary to what many commentators will inevitably conclude in the light of what appears to be a multiparty, multi-factional political jungle, it is my conclusion that this pattern bodes well for the future of democratic politics in Pakistan. First, it heralds the demise of the so-called One Unit doctrine which has dogged the chances of a multiplex, federal system like India's since the country's inception more than half a century ago. This is because the situation has come about, not through the divide and conquer tactics of military dictators, but through the medium of a constitutionally structured, grassroots political process.
Clearly, the role of President Musharraf and his supporters in the military-bureaucratic-feudal complex is destined to be decisive in the eventual outcome. Put simply, Musharraf so far has been sending out the right signals. He has accepted the verdict of the electorate and has now even hinted that he might step down as president if a majority of the legislators seem destined to vote him out of office. If such an event were to occur it would herald a truly monumental step towards the country's political transformation. Unquestionably, even the hint of such an eventuality, along with Musharraf's sweet reasonableness about the outcome of the elections, certainly bespeaks of the salutary influence that the United States and other democratic nations have exerted on him. Undoubtedly, however, this is not the whole story. Democratic processes at work in Pakistan itself have been even more decisive because only these can account for why the electorate itself has not only gone peaceably to the polls in record numbers; it also has in the process used the ballot box to decisively reject the extremist parties that would replace modern democracy with medieval theocracy.
If it is accurate to conclude that Pakistan may be on the verge of finding its own pathway to modern civil society, it now behooves the United States and other outsiders to give Pakistan a chance to craft a pluralistic, federalized, democratic society suited to its own perceived requirements. The columnist Beena Sarwar (Dawn, Feb 22) has rightly warned us not to sneer at what the 2008 elections have cast up. She paraphrases those who would declare, "What kind of democracy it is that puts the fate of the country in the hands of a Nawaz Sharif and an Asif Zardari? My lord, how weird! Help me understand..." Her "spontaneous answer" is, "It's surely not worse than a democracy which puts the fate of America - and the world - in the hands of a George W. Bush... TWICE!" And how could it be worse than India having "democratically elected" a "right wing BJP government in India backed by religious militants" who "cause enormous damage to India's secular polity?"
To repeat, it now behooves America and all of us to give Pakistan a chance to do it their way.
(Dr. Harold Gould is a visiting scholar at the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Virginia. He can be contacted at Harold.Gould4@verizon.net)