Hope in Pakistan?

I am hardly of the party that thinks democracy as such is the key to all things true and beautiful in politics; indeed, I’m generally persuaded that the majority is almost always wrong, that any policy labeled "populist" is likely to be informed by ignorance, and that if my view tends to accord with that of the majority, it might be time to rethink my opinion – except of course, for the happy fact that some 60-70 percent of the American people now think that the Iraq war was a mistake. Freedom is more important than democracy, which is merely a way of choosing which people will pretend to be our rulers for a while, and freedom is facilitated more by cultural factors like tolerance for the rights of others, a live-and-let-live attitude, and institutions that limit the power of rulers, however chosen, to impose their will on the rest of us.

Despite my general skepticism about the beauties of democracy, however, it seems just possible that the elections Monday in Pakistan yielded a sliver of hope for a country that some have viewed as essentially ungovernable (which is far from a bad thing in all cases, though in the case of Pakistan ungovernability has tended to express itself in violence rather than a quiet refusal to pay attention to those who presume a right to rule). Things could blow up in Pakistan, of course, and experience suggests disaster is more likely than progress. But there’s that sliver of hope.

Not so long ago most observers expected Monday’s parliamentary election in Pakistan to be followed by rioting and bloodshed. They expected President Pervez Musharraf’s government to engage in widespread election-rigging to gain a majority for the party supporting him (standard operating procedure in Pakistan), which would outrage the cheated opposition parties. In the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto – and the expectation that without a leader her party would do poorly – this scenario seemed plausible.

Didn’t happen. The headline is that Pakistani voters, as expected, roundly repudiated President Pervez Musharraf, who took control of the country in a military coup in 1999 and whose popularity has been on a serious dive for about a year. And sure enough, the two main opposition parties, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N, won 154 of the 272 elected seats in the National Assembly, while the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which supports its patron Musharraf, had only 38 seats. The two "opposition" parties, which have agreed to form a coalition government but haven’t yet come up with a candidate for prime minister, don’t have quite enough to impeach Musharraf (yet) which takes a two-thirds vote. But it’s certainly enough to diminish his effective power almost to the vanishing point.

It is a crushing defeat for a leader the United States supported strongly as a key factor in the global “war on terror.” However, because he engineered his election to another five-year term under the previous parliament, Mr. Musharraf will remain as president – unless, of course, he is impeached or otherwise forced from office.

Mr. Musharraf’s story is a validation of the theory that political leaders are like unrefrigerated fish and house guests – after a while they begin to stink. He was popular for a while because he brought stability and was a bit less corrupt than most Pakistani politicians. But ineffectualness against the reconstituted Taliban and al-Qaeda, looking like a U.S. puppet and proclaiming martial law made him deeply unpopular.

With its usual diplomatic adroitness, the Bush administration supported Musharraf personally rather than Pakistan as a country right up to the bitter end. Now it will have to scramble to find Pakistani leaders to talk to.

Perhaps the more important aspect of the election, however, was the collapse of Islamist or jihadist-sympathetic parties. The parties linked with or roughly sympathetic to the Taliban and/or al-Qaeda saw their share of the vote fall from about 11 percent in the last general election to 3 percent. The largest coalition of Islamist parties, the United Assembly for Action, (MMA) lost control of the Northwest Frontier Province (which the central government has never really controlled) to the avowedly secular, mildly leftist National Awami Party (ANP).

It is in the Northwest Frontier that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have their reconstituted strongholds. The MMA generally cooperated with Islamists, but the ANP is likely to marshal many of the province’s resources against the extremists, without the handicap of being perceived as a tool of the central government and therefore a tool of the American empire.

The advantage is that the election results show that for all the fears about Islamists taking over Pakistan and maybe getting control of the nuclear weapons (which are still firmly under the control of the military and apparently quite safe), their support is thin on the ground and likely to get thinner. These election results will do more than all the U.S. drones we can muster to counter the buildup of jihadist power.

This being Pakistan, things could go sour quickly. But a preliminary assessment is that these election results could be more constructive than most observers had dared to hope.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).