The tumultuous political scene in Pakistan, took an unexpected turn on 18 February, when President Musharaf’s political party Pakistan Muslim League ‘Q’ took a battering in the general election.
As we go to press, unofficial results show the Pakistan People’s Party, the party of assassinated ex-prime minster Benazir Bhutto, has won 86 seats out of 256 National Assembly seats. The PPP won a clear majority in the southern province of Sindh and have enough seats to rule the federal government there.
In the populous province of Punjab, Pakistan Muslim League-N led by Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minster deposed by Musharraff in a “bloodless coup” eight years ago, almost swept the board. Across the country, PML-N have won 65 seats.
The current ruling party PML-Q, made up of a colourful assortment of political opportunists, trailed far behind with 37 seats. However, that low figure tells only half the story. Almost unheard of in Pakistani politics, key ministers and politicians close to Musharraf lost their seats in the cull. These included PML-Q’s chairman, the relgious affairs minister Ejaz-Ul-Haq, son of the dictator Zia, and the outspoken railways minister, Sheik Rashid.
Musharraf’s popularity has been rapidly declining for a long time, but it reached its nadir after the storming of the Red Mosque last year, when scores of Islamists were killed, and the huge strike and protest movement of lawyers and barristers that swept the country late last year. The fact that large sections of the PPP still see a link between his government and the assassination of their leader Benazir Bhutto has further undermined the President. The rising cost of flour and the frequent electricity cuts have had caused great discontent.
The Labour Party of Pakistan, along with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf, and the bulk of the Islamisist alliance “MMA” — together forming (shamefully in the case of the LPP) the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy — boycotted the elections. This in turn boosted the other parties. The anti-Musharraf vote was not as split as it could have been. Turnout was low, as fear of suicide bombing and violence kept people indoors. There were also signs of electoral rigging, with many people turning up to the polls expecting to vote and finding they were not registered.
The relatively secular Pashtun-nationalist party, the Awami National Party, has taken control of the North West Frontier Province, winning 19 seats in all.
The MMA and Islamist parties have also been a loser in the elections; going down from 13 percent in 2002 general elections, to less than five percent now.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the party led by Edgware-dwelling exiled leader Altaf Hussein, won 19 seats, mainly in their strong hold in Karachi.
It is clear that Musharaf’s grip over Pakistani politics will loosen; it is less clear what the new government will look like, and who the new prime minister will be. With a coalition between the PPP and PML-N the most likely scenario, both parties have a leadership crisis.
PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif was not permitted to stand in the election due to outstanding corruption charges and Bhutto’s death has seen her unpopular husband Asif Ali Zardari (“Mr Ten Percent”) become chair of the party.
Musharaf, now a civilian president, will be acutely aware that if his opponents take control of two-third of the national assembly he may be impeached. Could he do a deal with the PPP?
The tragic irony of the whole situation is that when both the PPP and the PML-N were in government they were thoroughly corrupt, nepotistic and, of course, capitalist. These old elites are bad news for the workers.
• London AWL forum: “Where is Pakistan going”? 28 February, 7.30pm, Union Tavern, 52 Lloyd Baker St, London WC1