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The War on Terror & Pakistan’s Elections

Junaid S. Ahmad
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

The United States and Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf, the best of friends, have done on their own what the people of Pakistan could never have. They have ensured the strong showing of the religious right—the six-party alliance called the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA)—in the recent elections. With 45 seats in the National Assembly, majority support in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the largest presence in the Baluchistan provincial assembly, the MMA has emerged on the political scene with a bang. The elections to the National and Provincial Assemblies in Pakistan were held on October 10 under Gen. Musharraf’s version of guided democracy. The election just managed to beat the three-year deadline set by the Supreme Court in the wake of Musharraf’s October 1999 military coup. The European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) condemned the election as “seriously flawed” and stated that it was highly doubtful the electoral process could be considered as a transition to democracy. The official voter turnout was 41.8%, but both the EUEOM and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan documented a variety of irregularities, mostly state-sponsored, which prevented eligible voters from exercising their rights. While the election was meant to give the impression that Pakistan is returning to civilian rule, the EUEOM pointed out that the supreme role of the military had already been institutionalized by pre-election constitutional amendments. A National Security Council has been created which has the power to subordinate a civilian government to military control. Not surprisingly, US President George Bush’s administration was remarkably accommodating to its loyal ally in the “war on terror.” Ignoring the widespread allegations of irregularities, a US State Department spokesperson on October 16 described the election as “an important step” towards democracy. Even with blatant state backing, Musharraf’s preferred party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q), won just 77 of the 272 open seats. The party is commonly known, even in the Pakistani media, as the “King’s Party,” due to the fact that it was created from above by Musharraf to give him a base in the National Assembly. However, in spite of all this, they were unable to muster a majority to form a Government. Musharraf had promised “renewal” and a “struggle” against corruption, but his PML(Q) consists of the same old corrupt and incompetent faces from the other main political parties. Many of the party’s candidates have previously been subject to investigation by the National Accountability Bureau, Musharraf’s anti-corruption bureau. Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), was the election’s biggest loser with only 14 seats in the National Assembly. Nawaz Sharif now lives comfortably in exile in Saudi Arabia, where he fled with his family and his billions after Musharraf had deposed him. During his short time in power, Sharif managed to establish the most corrupt regime ever in Pakistan and had grabbed millions from banks that subsequently were forced into liquidation. When former PML(N) candidates joined the “King’s Party,” their files were closed. The next biggest bloc (63 seats) was won by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who, after corruption charges, decided to go into exile in London and Dubai. The PPP was founded by Benazir’s father, ZulfiquarAli Bhutto, in 1967. Z.A. Bhutto swept to power with a full-blooded socialist program in 1970 on the heels of the revolutionary movement of 1968. In 1979, he was hanged by the brutal pro-American military dictator, Zia-ul Haq. Since then, Benazir has lived off the glorious memory of her father and managed to win two general elections in 1988 and 1993 after the downfall of the Haq dictatorship. Her regime caused enormous disappointment as economic and social misery multiplied as Benazir implemented International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies of “liberalization, privatization, and deregulation.” In the general elections of 1997, the PPP was decimated and only received a handful of seats in the National Assembly. Despite membership in the Socialist International, the PPP is far from being a European-style social democratic party. Within the broad movement associated with the PPP, there are all types of elements ranging from feudal landlords to the strong revolutionary Marxist tendency around the journal Class Struggle. Religious right And now to the new phenomenon—the religious right, which has just proved its might. With a combination of ethnic, religious and nationalistic factors, as well as the policies of the United States contributing to its stunning seat tally, the coalition of religious parties, called the MMA, has emerged as a major player and is breaking the two-party pattern that has prevailed so far. This is the first time that six major religious parties, which combined in a first-ever electoral alliance in Pakistan, will have such a formidable presence in Parliament. Instead of marginalizing the pro-Taliban forces, President Musharraf’s policy of aligning with the US and joining its global war against terrorism has led to the religious parties becoming an influential force, unlike in the past when their electoral strength was negligible. The regime’s tactics of trying to isolate the mainstream parties has also contributed to the rise of the religious fundamentalist forces. Ever since the creation of Pakistan in the name of Islam, the “religious right” has been struggling to establish a foothold in the country’s mainstream politics. The “liberal lobby” always boasted that the religious groups had never been able to muster double-digit figures in terms of seats or vote share in any general election in all of Pakistan’s five-decade-plus electoral history. Ironically, the General’s elections have changed all this. There is little doubt that the emergence of the alliance of religious parties as the “third force” in national politics is yet another outcome of the September 11 terrorist strike and the vengeful American imperial actions that followed. This was a first of its kind in the political history of the country. Six traditionally fratricidal religious parties united on the basis of a common agenda of anti-Americanism. The MMA was born only weeks before the elections. Although differences exist among their leaders at ideological and personal levels, including their views about the ousted Taliban, all the six are unanimous in their opposition to the decision of the Pervez Musharraf regime to join the US-led coalition in the war on terror and the subsequent military operations in Afghanistan. Leaders of all these parties were in the forefront of the anti-US demonstrations in different parts of Pakistan after 9/11. Many were put behind bars on charges of disturbing the peace. In the 1980s, the religious right in Pakistan was very closely linked with American imperialism in Afghanistan and the Middle East. In the 1990s, the ruling political and military establishment in Pakistan continued to use the religious forces against their traditional rival, India. In addition, the Pakistani establishment had the illusion that a stable regime in Afghanistan would give them access to the markets and resources of Central Asia, making support for the Taliban its main priority. All that changed with September 11 and the consequent defeat of the Taliban. Nevertheless, the miraculous emergence of the MMA proves that none of this has curbed the spread of religious fundamentalism. In the period of campaigning before the elections, the religious parties were the only ones talking issues, denouncing the Americans and their actions in Afghanistan and calling for the withdrawal of American troops from Pakistani soil. The MMA gained enormous popularity due to its vocal advocacy of democracy, defense of the constitution and support for Pakistan’s sovereignty. It also gained a very high profile by voicing opposition to US foreign policy, earning it the image of being an anti-imperialist force. But what about the pseudo-liberals and political elite chained to the altar of ambiguity and expediency? The pseudo-liberals have nothing to offer except an abiding faith in their ability to come out on top no matter what the wishes of the Pakistani masses. Compare the issue-driven campaign of the MMA with the vacuous and spineless conduct of the other parties and this triumph looks all the more inevitable. Forget about Musharraf’s “King’s Party,” the PML(Q). It campaigned on nothing except official patronage, because it had nothing else to go on. Nothing to offer But take the other parties—the PPP and the PML-N. Did they have anything to say? Any issues they brought up? None spring to mind. On the central question of the American presence in Pakistan or the way Pakistan was press-ganged into joining America’s war, both parties remained locked in silence for fear of offending the Bush administration. The belief is still strong among Pakistan’s traditional political class that the path to power in Islamabad passes through Washington. One thing is for sure, the religious factor does not seem to be a passing phenomenon in Pakistani politics—it is here to stay. The grayness of the military regime and the ideological bankruptcy of the “liberal” and “conservative” bourgeois parties will ensure this. So far, each step in the process of Musharraf’s “restoration of democracy” has met with a stumbling block. The newly elected National Assembly and Provincial Assemblies could not be convened for weeks. Time was bought and legal authority was given to get the numbers right by engineering splits and making and breaking alliances in order to get a compliant group at the helm. Consequently, the inaugural session of the National Assembly was delayed for an entire five weeks. Meanwhile, the “King’s party” and the establishment cobbled up a majority and claimed to have mustered enough to survive a vote of confidence in the National Assembly. Mir Zafarulah Jamali, a feudal lord from Baluchistan, was elected as Prime Minister on November 21 by the Assembly. Jamali obtained 172 assembly votes, just enough to grab the PM post, but only thanks to 10 crucial votes from a group which broke away from Benazir Bhutto’s PPP. Jamali, who naturally ran on a PML(Q) party ticket, has a long and notorious record as a feudal tyrant who, in 1977, deprived peasants of land that was rightfully allotted to them by the previous government and later brutally suppressed them. Jamali also dissolved the Baluchistan provincial assembly in 1988, when he was the province’s chief minister. The election results have only complicated the problem for Musharraf. His alliance with the US is increasingly unpopular. The earlier referendum and the October polls have not strengthened his position but unleashed forces which cannot be controlled through the farcical democratic faÁade he has sought to provide for his regime. The new civil regime represents no change for the masses of Pakistan—it is the same pro-US Musharaf military regime in civilian clothes. Undoubtedly, it will continue the hated economic policies of the Washington Consensus in the name of “reforms.” There is a reasonable prospect that the Islamist political forces will gain further popularity as social conditions deteriorate in Pakistan. Imperialist penetration and the rise of the religious right are an explosive mixture which portends greater tensions and turmoil in the region. There has never been a more urgent time for serious, dedicated Left and progressive forces in Pakistan to engage themselves in a “war of position” for the hearts and minds of the over hundred million ordinary Pakistanis who see no way out of their country’s neo-colonial relationship other than turning to the contradictory politics of Islamism. About the Author Junaid S. Ahmad is a member of INSAF (International South Asia Forum) and the Progressive Muslims Network. He can be reached at: junaid.ahmad(at)