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Articles | | Foreign Policy, [The Middle East Project]

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by Salim Mansur

Musharraf’s defeat signals a new era for Pakistan.

The news from Pakistan following this week’s elections for the national and provincial assemblies tentatively is positive for a country awash in dread of escalating terrorist violence and political stalemate.

There was fear of an aborted election, or the results manipulated by the ruling party associated with President Pervez Musharraf, who was until lately a military dictator.

In murdering Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the terrorists warned Pakistanis of their readiness to turn the election into carnage, and this partly explains why less than 40% of some 80 million eligible voters ventured to the polls.

[More]But the election turned out to be, by all accounts, relatively open and free. Musharraf’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q), conceded defeat and the main opposition parties — PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) – together emerged with a majority in the 342-member lower house of the National Assembly (NA).

The most noteworthy election result is the near elimination of the Islamic fundamentalist parties at the national and provincial levels.

In the NA the presence of religious parties was reduced from 59 members elected in 2002 to three members. In the provincial assemblies the results were similar, a repudiation by the voters of the religious parties insistent on enforcing Islamic laws (sharia) on the country.

Religious parties 

This news confirms what those most familiar with Pakistan’s political history have known for the longest time that religious parties — with their support for the Taliban, their affinity with the Arab world’s Muslim brotherhood and their ties to Saudi Arabia’s extremist Wahhabi sect — have only marginal electoral support in the country and even less political legitimacy.

There is a message here for the West that a majority of Muslims, when given an opportunity to vote freely, is unlikely to support fundamentalists with their ideologically driven commitment for sharia as the answer to problems of a broken and failed society such as Pakistan.

The transition of any society from authoritarian politics to the beginnings of democracy is fraught with uncertainty.

In Pakistan’s turbulent history the political class with secular leanings has been an abject failure in providing responsible and accountable government. Its past record of corruption and ineptitude may not bode well for the future, while military rule as the alternative to democracy has left Pakistan in worse shape politically to cope with demands of the modern world.

Yet the hope for Pakistan riding on the results of this election is that politicians will have learned some lessons from the past, and that they will do better in meeting the needs of the people.

Unnatural allies

The PPP and the PML-N are unnatural allies in their opposition to President Musharraf, and their divergent interests will open enough space for the PML-Q — the president’s party with the third largest bloc of members in the NA — to push back the temptation for politics of vengeance or break with the Bush administration over the war on terror, even as Islamist terrorists strive to create instability in the country.

This election could be the first halting steps for the building of democracy in Pakistan, for the distance Pakistanis have to go in repairing their country, in eliminating terrorists and in seeking peaceful neighbourly relations to secure for themselves a deservingly better future.

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