By Rana Fawad
WASHIGNTON: The US should urge President Pervez Musharraf to step down after the Pakistanis gave their verdict against his party in February 18 elections.
This view was expressed by all the speakers at an event “The Pakistan Elections: What Next?” held under the auspices of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars on Monday. Robert Hathaway, Director Asia Program Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars moderated the proceedings while the speakers included Eric Bjornlund (Cofounder and Principal of Democracy International), Hassan Abbas (Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs), Hassan Askari Rizvi (Annual Pakistan Studies Scholar at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies), and Marvin Weinbaum (Scholar-in-Residence at the Middle East Institute).
Eric Bjornlund, who observed elections in Pakistan, told the audience that despite the fact how flawed and difficult the pre-election environment was, it gave the people an opportunity to express their will. He said that general acceptance of the election was that the results reflected what the people were trying to say.
“The election day was relatively peaceful and there was no evidence of systematic manipulation,” he informed the gathering. He also told the audience about the methodology that was adopted to monitor the elections and added that a detailed report would be released later on.
Referring to his organization’s efforts to monitor these elections, he said his team had the advantage because they had been working with the Asia foundation as well as a domestic election monitoring coalition called Free and Fair Elections Network that resulted in almost 20,000 election observers on the election day.
Hassan Abbas addressed three key questions: one, will the new parliament work; two, was there any element of rigging; and three, will the new government create any complications for the US policy of war on terrorism?
Interpreting the election results, Hassan Abbas opined that despite pre-election rigging by the King’s party and despite pro-Musharraf leniency shown by the US, the people of Pakistan gave a very clear verdict which was anti-Musharraf and anti-mullah. He added that the verdict was for liberal forces, democracy, provincial autonomy, and independence of judiciary in Pakistan.
In his view, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) got a significant share of the vote bank in the Punjab province because Nawaz Sharif took a very strong stance that he will restore the judiciary. As for the People’s Party’s success, Hassan commented that the PPP got 37 per cent of the votes which is about the same because in the previous five elections, this party had the support of 35 per cent of the voters in each election.
However, he termed the success of the Awami National Party (ANP) an important development. Hassan Abbas told the audience that many analysts missed this potential victory in their forecasts because in 2002, elections were rigged as confessed by a former Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) official, General Ihtisham Zamir, who admitted that he did rigging on the instructions of Musharraf in favor of some of the religious parties.
Hassan Abbas said it became clear that in 2002 the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) benefited from the intelligence community’s help apart from drawing support from the anti-American sentiment at that time.
He pointed out that the MMA’s poor performance during the last five years also contributed to the ANP’s success. He said the ANP, which is an old secular party, had contended that they would stand for the Pushtoon nationalism and they had become victims of the Pakistani military operation, the jihadi elements and across the border from the coalition forces’ operations.
Commenting on the future of the PPP-PML-N coalition, Hassan Abbas sounded optimistic and commented that both Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari had matured as politicians and cooperated with each other very intelligently in the past few years. “This potential coalition of PPP, PML-N and ANP will actually work,” he said. However, he also warned that in the coming six months intrigues will begin either by some intelligence agency or the political opponents to tear down the government.
Referring to the rigging, Hassan Abbas gave credit to the new army chief General Kiyani and told the gathering that there was a rigging plan in place. He said it was General Kiyani who took a very serious stand and in an unprecedented way invited some of the journalists to the General Headquarters and told them off the record, knowing those journalists would go out and talk to the people, that the army would not be responsible for any rigging and it would try its best to ensure the elections were free and fair. “That was a jolt for Musharraf. I think the pro-Musharraf party that had some plans for rigging was not expecting it,” he added.
Analyzing the success of the Musharraf’s PML-Q in Balochistan province, Hassan Abbas said there were some serious problems because a party that was defeated all over the country and was responsible for a lot of chaos in Balochistan emerged as the winner there.
He linked it to the Pakistani establishment’s thinking to hold control and save Balochistan. He said the establishment was feeling that due to numerous factors including important assets in that province, Gwadar port, proximity to Afghanistan, remnants of Taliban, etc., a conspiracy might be hatched in the western capitals that Balochistan should go autonomous. “So I think some manipulation did happen in Balochistan,” he concluded.
Forecasting the future of war on terrorism under the new government, Hassan Abbas opined that it would not create any complication. He said the new political leadership would not define the policy on war on terrorism rather it would be decided by the Pakistan army and General Kiyani. He added that it should not be a source of concern because the US intelligence agencies and General Kiyani had a solid relationship to achieve the goals.
Hassan Abbas commented that the elections were more credible that the previous four and this exercised proved that whenever the Pakistan army wanted to do something they delivered. On an optimistic note about the stability in the future, he urged the international community as well as the US not to focus on dictators only because the elections results showed the people were for secular forces and they should be nurtured and groomed.Hassan Askari Rizvi termed these elections as a major success for the democratic forces in the conflict between authoritarianism and aspirations for democratic as well as participatory political system. “And this time the balance has been tilted in favor of the democratic forces but the confrontation between authoritarianism and aspirations for democracy continues,” he commented.
He said the outcome of the elections proved two things: one, a system built around one person has crumbled; two, the county returned to normalcy as far as the Islamic religious parties’ vote bank was concerned.
Prof Hassan Askari explained that the religious parties used to play their role as pressure groups except in Zia as well as Musharraf regime. He pointed out that the elections had provided an opportunity to create a viable and coherent political order. However, he warned that it was too early to predict whether the political leaders would succeed given their past record.
“At the moment these political leader appear very confident, at times over confident.
Then you also have political forces and societal groups that are impatient. They want things to be done overnight,” he said and added that those people wanted things like changes in the Constitution, restoration of the judiciary, etc., but this haste could portend danger of overlooking the ground political realities that existed in Pakistan.
Highlighting the immediate political realities in Pakistan, the professor pointed out that the first and the foremost challenge for the political leaders would be to contend with the political beneficiaries of the Musharraf political system in their efforts to realize the objectives they laid out in the run up to the election.
He said another challenge would come from the political forces and societal groups because they would like issues such as the removal of judges, provincial autonomy, etc., to be settled. “Therefore the question is whether they can create a minimum consensus on the operational norms of the system they want to pursue,” he added.
Prof Hassan Askari explicated that the new political leadership’s capacity to address those issues would depend to a great extent on Musharraf’s future. “My own feeling is that Musharraf and new leadership will not be able to work for a long period of time,” he commented and predicted that a clash between the two would be unavoidable in just a couple of months which could result either in Musharraf’s removal or the collapse of the system.
Analyzing Musharraf’s style of governance, Prof Hassan Askari said it would be difficult for Musharraf to work with the new government. “He had managed the country for the last eight, nine years single-handedly and reduced the political leadership of the past to non-entity. All the three prime ministers were political nonentities,” he commented.
He said the new political leaders would not accept that kind of role to work with him because their own political future would at stake. “The ideal situation would be that Musharraf resigns voluntarily. That would enable the government to deal with the issue of restoration of the judges, amendments to the Constitution,” he explained and added “if that does not happen then you’ve a very serious situation in Pakistan.”
Prof Hassan Askari Rizvi also remarked that the US should encourage Musharraf to quit because his continuation would also create problems for the efforts in the direction of counterterrorism. He said Musharraf had managed counterterrorism as an administrative and bureaucratic affair with no or little involvement of the people.
He advised the US that the new leadership’s moderation would let them initiate a dialogue with the extremists and we should not get up set about that because they would use a different kind of combination of political means and if those means do not work the then the focus could shift to the military means.
In his analysis, Marvin Weinbaum found the Pakistani voters’ enthusiasm against the establishment in this election similar to that in 1971. He termed it a historic election in the sense that “It is the first truly democratic, constitutional transfer of power in Pakistan’s history.” He added that it was a verdict on the last few years of the previous government.
Marvin Weinbaum commented that it was a ‘bread and butter election’ because the shortages in wheat and energy really turned people against the incumbent government.
He agreed with Eric Bjornlund that there was a biased pre-election atmosphere in terms of access to the media, the way the Punjab government distributed jobs, judiciary, etc., and “this was meant to go the way of the government.”
He said as far as the United States was concerned, this election was supposed to take the heat off Musharraf. “Obviously, it burned him and burned him very severely,” he commented.
Referring to the down side of this election, Marvin Weinbaum was of the view that it remained about personalities. “It was not an election about issues, manifestoes and, therefore, was keeping in the tone of Pakistan’s politics,” he said and added, “This has to be a disappointment.”
Talking about the voters in Pakistan, Marvin Weinbaum mentioned that contrary to a perception held by many, the electorate was moderate. “It is certainly a conservative electorate, Islamic electorate. But not one which has ever seen the religious leaders as desirable as the leaders of the country,” he argued.
As for the war on terrorism and the impact of the elections, he said on balance it was a good outcome because it meant the future policy on the issue would emerge out of the elected government. He explained that sooner or later the new government would have to recognize the challenges posed by the extremism.
However, he warned that the new policy on terrorism in that region should be disconnected from the American link. He pointed out that as long as the policy was perceived as an American project the people of the country would not support it, though they were turned off by the extremists.
He regretted that apart from congratulating the winners, the US also reminded them of the importance of the war on terrorism. “We would have been better off, if we had left off the latter part of our congratulatory remarks,” he suggested.
Marvin Weinbaum commented that the US policy of seeing Musharraf as indispensable had failed to recognize the change taking place in that country. He added that the US policy did not recognize that Musharraf was increasingly irrelevant because the people gave their verdict against him and he was not any more the army chief.
He said it was going to be the army, feeling the support of the people, which would determine the extent of the policy on extremism. He warned that, “The last thing we should be perceived of now is meddling in that. And I’m afraid that’s the way it’s being seen in Pakistan.”
He told the audience that after the elections, the Pakistani newspapers were already saying the US should stay out of that.
Referring to the US policy on Pakistan, he said it was ironical that “Every time we tried to help Musharraf, we usually make it worse for him. We have failed to appreciate that the last thing he needs is our praise because naturally this reinforces the idea that he acts as an instrument of American policy.”
He pointed out that the congratulations had been provided specifically to Musharraf for holding a free and fair election. “It’s very much like congratulating the thief who, with all his preparations, decided not to rob the bank,” he quipped.
Commenting on the future prospects of democracy in Pakistan, he struck an optimistic note by saying that unlike 1990s, when the political parties gave democracy a black eye, this election gave the leaders another opportunity which is more than just jockeying for power.
Shedding some light on the future leadership in Pakistan, he predicted Asif Zardari would be grooming himself for power in the coming days though Amin Fahim would be the prime minister for the time being.
As for Nawaz Sharif, he said, “I think ultimately the man who will inherit the democratic wind here is going to be Nawaz Sharif” and added, “If this goes in a direction I see it is going, I’m afraid there will be an election long before the next scheduled election.”
He hinted that in the next election largely a unified Muslim League would emerge as the leading party.
Marvin Weinbaum concluded his comments by saying that democracy has another opportunity and the time for the military government is up.