Pakistan: Electoral Upset

Farooq Sattar, leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement
Farooq Sattar (R), leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a key junior coalition partner (Photo: AFP). 

Pakistan’s Oct. 10 election—the first since the 1999 bloodless coup that brought President Pervez Musharraf to power—was a highly controlled event. Last summer, Musharraf banned the country’s two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, from running for office (though their parties participated). He decreed that no one without a college education could serve in the National Assembly, thereby eliminating about 40 percent of the previous Parliament as potential contenders. And he did not prevent what observers from the European Union deemed to be “serious flaws” in the electoral process. But despite these efforts, it appears that the vote did not go exactly as Musharraf had planned.

While the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PML-QA), which backs Musharraf, won the largest number of seats, it failed to secure a majority. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six religious parties, surprised almost everyone with its third-place showing, and now looks set to determine who will serve as Pakistan’s next prime minister. As this magazine went to press, the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD), an anti-military alliance that includes Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), appeared ready to back an MMA candidate, a cleric, in his bid for the prime minister’s post.

Many in the international community expressed concern about the MMA’s success, citing the group’s reported anti-U.S. and pro-Taliban stance. But the Pakistani press was not so worried. “The party does not mean to leave the course of dialogue and opt for the Mullah Omar way,” said Daily Jang (Oct. 15). 

A writer for The News (Oct. 29) attributed the results to the country’s political vacuum. He explained: “Had there been Nawaz Sharif and Benazir [Bhutto] in the country and allowed to lead their parties…the MMA would not have secured that number of seats.” A writer for Daily Jang (Oct. 21) attributed the outcome to the fact that the MMA “successfully exploited the sentiments of people in the provinces close to the Afghan border.” Said another writer in The News (Oct. 14): “The vote for the MMA is not a vote for beard, burqahs, or jihad. It is foremost a vote against imperialism and indignity.” 

Many downplayed the extremism of the MMA. “If [the Americans] can accept the government of the hard-core fundamentalist Hindus in India, then why not in Pakistan? The Islamic forces here are not as fanatical as are the followers of the Indian Bharatiya Janta Party,” said a writer in Daily Jang (Oct. 15). “Besides, the mullahs are pussycats compared to the zealots ruling Israel and India and, for that matter, the United States,” explained another in The News (Oct. 14). An MMA leader expressed a similar sentiment in Nada-e-Milat (Oct. 24-30), saying, “We have told [the West] not to take us as Iran or Afghanistan....We have told them not to take us as illiterate and extremist clergy. We know the demands of the modern world.”

In the end, it does not really matter whether Musharraf expected this vote or is happy with its outcome. He will remain in power for the next five years, in accordance with the results of a referendum held last April, which few considered legitimate. And under new constitutional amendments that he introduced, he now has the power to dismiss Parliament and the prime minister. It seems hard to imagine that the country’s new leaders won’t keep this in mind as they decide how to govern.