The Pakistan parliamentary elections earlier this week went more smoothly than many dared hope. After a campaign marked by suicide bombings and assassinations of candidates (including Benazir Bhutto), election day itself was reasonably quiet. Fears of widespread vote-rigging failed to materialise, despite reports of irregularities and intimidation.
The result clearly reflected the unpopularity of President Musharraf. His “King’s party” was all but wiped out by Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-N of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. With the PPP having emerged as the largest party, but lacking a parliamentary majority, the two parties are set to govern in coalition, despite their long history of animosity.
The election provides the opportunity to instill Pakistani politics with some much needed legitimacy. But already, there are signs that this legitimacy is being squandered.
Firstly, there is the issue of President Musharraf’s future. Despite this week’s electoral repudiation, he seems determined to cling to power, and the United States seems determined to keep him there. But he has been seriously weakened in recent months. Last year he was finally pressured into belatedly renouncing his position as chief of the armed forces, and he now faces a hostile parliament. His continued presence will undermine the credibility of any government that serves under him.
Then there is the pressure to restore an independent judiciary. Last year, Musharraf sacked Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, alongside dozens of other judges, many of whom were placed under house arrest. The Court had seemed set to rule against the validity of a US-brokered deal between Musharraf and Benazir, in which her party voted to extend Musharraf’s presidency until 2012, in return for an amnesty on outstanding corruption charges against her. If restored to office, Chaudry would almost certainly rule against the legality of Musharraf’s presidency.
Musharraf’s current conciliatory mood apparently does not extend to Chaudry, who remains under house arrest and who he described earlier this week as the “scum of the earth“. Chaudry managed to give an interview this week on a smuggled mobile phone, while another prominent lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsen, briefly left his house to be carried on the shoulders of cheering supporters after his guards failed to report for duty. Such infringements brought a sharp response. Ahsan’s house has now been surrounded by barbed wire and police reinforcements, while lawyers protesting against Musharraf were tear-gassed.
Such scenes will taint any compromise between the incoming parliament and Musharraf. The US government’s long-standing fondness for Pakistani military rulers has helped to generate the current tamasha (mess). It is time to move on.