Dictatorship, Democracy, and Islamism in Pakistan

Viewpoints: Pakistan's Elections

Shah Ahmed Noorani (C), president of Pakistan's Islamic alliance of six fundamentalist parties, the Muttahidda Mujlis-e-Amal (MMA), flanked by Qazi Hussian Ahmed (R) and Maulana Fazlur Rehman
Islamabad: Shah Ahmed Noorani (C), president of the Muttahidda Majlis-e-Amal, an alliance of six Islamist parties, addresses reporters on Oct. 16, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Lahore The Nation (conservative), Oct. 14: There is no denying that the nation is facing a set of unprecedented crises since 9/11. Whatever the reasons, and whoever might be responsible, Pakistan’s unstinted support for the U.S. war on terrorism has left its sovereignty in tatters, the Kashmir and Afghanistan pillars of its foreign policy shattered, its economy in recession, and the Indian armed forces camped on its borders with every sign of encouragement from the supposedly friendly United States. The only gains have been permission for the president to make a few foreign visits, some debt relief and some grants, and the generous restraint by the West in not destroying Pakistan’s nuclear program. At this juncture, the military itself has been subjected to such intense criticism, and that too during an election campaign, that its ability to perform its duty of defending the borders is not enhanced.

Lahore The Friday Times (independent), Oct. 11: I have long argued that politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and that by trying to sideline the mainstream, moderate parties, Gen. Musharraf would inevitably pave the way for the immoderate religious parties. This lesson should have been learnt by now but it wasn't. When the establishment got rid of Benazir Bhutto in 1990, it made way for Nawaz Sharif. When it got rid of Sharif in 1993, it made way for Bhutto. When it got rid of Bhutto in 1996, it made way for Sharif. But when Musharraf got rid of Sharif in 1999 and started to hound Bhutto as well, he made way for the MMA [Muttahidda Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of six Islamist political parties]…. But there is a more cynical view that may gain currency. Maybe this is just what the establishment wanted. Two critical provinces bordering Afghanistan with the anti-American MMA [in power] so that the establishment can drive a hard bargain with Washington. And coalition governments in the other two provinces in which pro-establishment minorities or majorities can keep “democracy” in check.
—Najam Sethi

New Delhi Outlook (independent weekly), Oct. 9: Pakistan has had four military dictators (if one omits Gen. Iskander Mirza) in its history, but none had sought to distort the entire constitutional and legal process in the country in such an outrageous manner as Gen. Pervez Musharraf has done with his constitutional amendments and administrative orders without constitutional or legal sanction. None had misused the military-intelligence establishment in such a blatant manner to manipulate the electoral process as he has been doing to influence the forthcoming elections to the National Assembly on Oct. 10, 2002…. It is doubtful whether Musharraf would have been able to indulge in such a rape of democracy, which is shocking even from Pakistan's standards, if he had not had the blessings of the United States and if Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto had not discredited themselves in the eyes of the people because of their corrupt and arbitrary ways of functioning when they held office as the duly elected prime minister.
—B. Raman

Karachi Dawn (centrist, English-language), Oct. 14: In what has become a traditional part of the post-election scenario, a crescendo of voices is once again crying foul and accusing the government of large-scale rigging. Barring the 1970 and 1993 polls, there have been loud accusations of electoral fraud by the losing parties, most spectacularly in 1977…. Perhaps the best way to eliminate such allegations—by bad losers as well as the genuinely aggrieved ones—is to learn from the Bangladeshi example of a neutral caretaker government, with no stake in the outcome, taking over for three months to oversee the holding of elections and then quitting after a new government comes in.

Chennai The Hindu (centrist), Oct. 12: Pakistan’s voters would appear to have delivered to their president, Pervez Musharraf, the ingredients that make for the worst of nightmares, going by the trend of the election results for the National and Provincial Assemblies. A hung central legislature, two extremely sensitive provinces in the hands of religious hardliners, the failure of his favorite party to make the grade and the opportunity provided to all his political foes to make a united front against him are just a part of the fallout that Gen. Musharraf has to contend with…. Just about the only silver lining is that no one, either within Pakistan or outside of it, has accused the military regime or its leader of having resorted to crude forms of electoral malpractices. By most accounts, the process of balloting was fair and relatively violence-free and any pre-poll rigging that was alleged to have taken place has, to go by the overall pattern of the results, turned out to be ineffectual. But if Gen. Musharraf has fulfilled his promise to usher in "real" democracy in terms of processes, he has to now face an a mighty challenge in trying to validate his vow in substance as well.

Karachi The News (left-wing), Oct. 11: The need is for creating a system that would itself ensure its continuation, not rely on another agency. It would be wrong for democracy to have a political godfather to guarantee its continuation, as in that case if there is any unexpected change at the top, it will have a negative trickle-down effect. Democracy has to be made to stand on its own legs, not held up by props and other such structures.

Islamabad Pakistan Observer (English-language), Oct. 14: On the basis of what was going on during the electoral process, we had all along been urging the government to take remedial steps to make the exercise credible in the eyes of the general public and the international community….We do not totally agree with the findings of the European Union [expressing concern over irregularities in the election] since other independent teams, like that of the Commonwealth, have expressed satisfaction with the overall process. However, we would urge the government to discard the policy of frequent changes in the electoral laws and procedures to accommodate some particular groups/parties and instead evolve a consensus mechanism that ensures transparency of elections and their result.

Ottawa Ottawa Citizen (conservative), Oct. 14: Western countries tend to promote elections as the guarantor of democracy. Yet, Pakistan's election offers a lesson in some of the dangers of democracy…. There is much irony in this situation. Western countries regularly lectured Musharraf on the need to restore Pakistan to democratic rule. Now we have the results—a pro-Taliban vote. It's a reminder that democracy is not just a matter of voting, but the blossom on a tree rooted in traditions of free thought, civic trust, the rule of law, and respect for individual freedom.

New Delhi Hindustan Times (centrist), Oct. 13: For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the fundamentalists have scored a remarkable victory, winning a majority in two provinces and a sizeable number of seats in the national assembly. Till this election, it was an axiom of Pakistani politics that the extremist religious parties have never reached double figures in their percentage of votes…. The problem is that while the king’s party—the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam)—is comprised only of puppets and, therefore, does not have a political base, the jihadis of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal do have a base of sorts in the madrasas [religious schools] and the terrorist training camps. There is little doubt that their clandestine links with the fundamentalist elements in the Pakistani army and the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] will now be strengthened even further since these Taliban-style mullahs will be ruling two provinces in the areas bordering Afghanistan. The terrorists will obviously be elated by this outcome, which bodes ill for India and even the saner elements within Pakistan.

London The Guardian, Oct. 12: The sharp increase in the vote for Pakistan's Islamist parties is worrying and unwelcome, but it does not have to lead to disaster…. In Pakistan as a whole, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) Islamist alliance is a very long way indeed from gaining a plurality, let alone a majority. Equally importantly, the MMA is not a monolithic bloc, but a highly disparate and mutually antagonistic alliance. It contains very radical Sunni parties, but also more moderate ones, and even a Shia party. Maybe hatred of America and of Gen. Musharraf, and the joys of controlling provincial governments, will hold them together—but maybe not.
—Anatol Lieven