Pakistan has had a second free and fair election in its history. The first one was in December 1970. That resulted in East Pakistan voting entirely for the Awami League and West Pakistan for a Pakistan People's Party (PPP) majority without a single seat being gained by the Awami League. After the genocide, ethnic cleansing and a war in which India was involved, Pakistan split into two - Bangladesh in the east and Pakistan in the west.
This time in the elections while the PPP has emerged as a pan-Pakistan party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has no member elected from Sindh and Balochistan. Fortunately, at present, Nawaz Sharif, leader of the PML-N, is keen to cooperate with the PPP in forming a government, unlike in 1971 when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto refused to do so.
Though the PML-N and the PPP have been rivals since 1988, Sharif considers that President Pervez Musharraf is his primary adversary and he must be deposed from power and if possible impeached. Therefore, he is prepared to accept PPP leadership in the formation of a coalition government. As is to be expected, Musharraf is attempting to divide the two.
He is urging the PPP to form a coalition with his own party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Qaid-e-Azam (PML-Q), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and others and keep the PML-N out of power. Though the PPP may have gained the largest number of seats, the PML-Q and its erstwhile allies polled the highest number of votes exceeding PPP by 800,000 votes. In that sense, Musharraf has a strong hand to play.
An alliance between the PPP and the PML-N cannot last long even if they patch up their differences and form a coalition. Therefore, the general expectation is that Sharif's party will stay in coalition till they get rid of Musharraf, restore the dismissed judges and the constitution to the pre-1999 coup position and then break away to fight a new election.
Sharif is a leader with much greater charisma than Asif Ali Zardari or Maqdoom Amin Fahim. The Punjabis, while a significant section among them accepted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto as pan-Pakistan leaders, are not likely to accept Zardari or Fahim as their leader. Exercising power in coalition with the PML-Q may help the PPP to consolidate itself further in Punjab. For these reasons Zardari may be tempted to join hands with the PML-Q and keep the PML-N out of the coalition.
Further, Musharraf is attempting to revive the cases pending against Zardari. His past is the main vulnerability of Zardari and he is not very popular among the Pakistani middle class. He was called "Mr 10 Percent". By applying pressure on him Musharraf hopes to get Zardari to fall in line with him. In this attempt there is every possibility that he may get the support of the US bureaucratic establishment, which has a crony relationship with Pakistani military, intelligence and diplomats.
It may be recalled that Musharraf had earlier persuaded Benazir Bhutto to join him as prime minister under his presidency and the proposal had American blessings.
The Americans are reported to dislike Sharif because of his ambivalent attitude towards religious parties. But this election clearly disclosed that the victory of the religious parties in the 2002 elections and their defeat in the current elections were due to Musharraf and the ISI rigging the elections in favor of religious parties on the earlier occasion. Therefore, an objective assessment will raise doubts about Musharraf's commitment to fighting the war on terrorism.
But the Americans have been successfully led to believe that he is on their side in the war on terrorism. Such a mistaken assessment arising out of cronyism of US organizations with their counterparts in dictatorships has a long history and covers US relationship with Kuomintang China, Ngo Dinh Dziem's Vietnam, Shah's Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
The US establishment should have been jolted into reality in the light of this election. But the history of US mistakes does not necessarily hold out much hope that America would come to terms with reality and dump Musharraf. On the other hand, the US may join him in applying pressure on Zardari.
Yet another man to watch is General Ashfaq Kayani, a Punjabi and the hatchet man of Musharraf as director general of ISI during 2004-07. Logically his interests should be to get rid of Musharraf and not share power with him. He has very good precedents for doing so.
Musharraf toppled civilian prime minister Sharif. The previous army chiefs, Jehangir Karamat and Abdul Wahid Kakkar, brought about the fall of president Leghari, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and president Ghulam Ishaq Khan. General Aslam Beg had Benazir Bhutto dismissed. General Zia-ul Haq died in a plane crash believed to have been engineered by army officers. Zia-ul Haq hanged his boss - Z.A. Bhutto. Field Marshal Ayub Khan was stabbed in the back by Bhutto and overthrown by General Yahya Khan.
Given this history there is no reason why General Kayani should not give marching orders to Musharraf. He can do it in two ways. He can do it directly by informing Musharraf that the army is no longer prepared to have him as an unwanted baggage in view of his proven unpopularity established in the general election, which was a referendum on him.
He can do it in a more sophisticated manner by advising Zardari to go along with Sharif and thereby denying reconfirmation of Musharraf by the newly elected assemblies - a requirement as per Musharraf's pledge to the Supreme Court. However, to do that General Kayani will need to negotiate with the Americans to get their support for the initial Zardari-Sharif coalition installed as government.
Any initial Zardari-Sharif accord has to be treated with caution and one has to wait till a government is formed. Let us recall the earlier Benazir-Sharif accord on democracy which was very short-lived. Similarly, in 1971 Yahya Khan initially greeted Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as prime minister of the eastern wing and then unleashed the army.
In this complex game, Zardari and Musharraf are pawns. The real players are General Kayani, the US and to some extent Sharif.
If Musharraf succeeds in installing a PPP-PML-Q coalition government the situation in Pakistan will become more unstable. The jihadis will step up their activities against Musharraf and the Americans will make their reservations about Sharif's ambivalence against the religious parties into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Punjab provincial government will be run by the PML-N unless there are further political shenanigans.
While free and fair elections constitute a major step towards democratization of Pakistan, political stability is quite some way off. One clear message from the elections is the Americans are still to develop a basic understanding of the realities of Pakistan and the war on terrorism in this area.
(K. Subrahmanyam is India's pre-eminent analyst on strategic and international affairs. He can be contacted at email@example.com)