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Musharraf's Win, Pakistan's Loss

October 20, 2002|Paula R. Newberg | Paula R. Newberg is the author of "Judging the State: Courts and Constitutional Politics in Pakistan."

WASHINGTON -- Pakistan's politics often set the world on edge, and this month's fundamentally flawed and predictably fragmented elections are likely to annoy allies and enemies for years to come. By manipulating every aspect of the polling, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf mocked the value of the elections, risked regional security and set back the country's transition to civilian government. This shameful episode has made it much harder for Pakistanis to redeem the ideas of democracy and tolerance in a region rife with social tension and terror.

Since the coup that brought him to power three years ago, Musharraf has routinely disparaged politics and the politicians who practice it. He agreed to elections this year only because Pakistan's courts and the international community demanded them. But he set the rules to divide an already fractious polity to ensure that he would retain preeminent power. The European Union, the British Commonwealth, human-rights and democracy organizations in Pakistan and outside it -- almost everyone except the U.S. government -- condemned his maneuverings long before polling day. Nonetheless, Musharraf's ploy worked: No party secured a majority, and the coalition that will soon emerge will undoubtedly diminish parliament's future role.

That's the bad news. But the sheer orneriness of Pakistan's politics sent some interesting, mixed messages.

First, many Pakistanis stayed home rather than vote, a clear slap in the general's face.

Second, local politics matters, even if it doesn't to Musharraf. If the new government strays too far from basic concerns -- poverty, education or the effects of terrorist bombing campaigns and anti-terrorism actions on ordinary Pakistanis -- resistance is not just possible but likely. By removing tribal leaders from their accustomed perches, where they could pick and choose their fights with the military, Musharraf opened the door to transnational Islamic parties with little stake in familiar electoral politics.

That's the third message: There is a newly empowered group of religion-based parties that now rivals traditional secular leaders and will figure prominently in any new government. This has already set teeth grinding in Kabul, Delhi and Washington, where these parties are seen as Taliban look-alikes that will compromise the global war on terrorism and reinforce religious stricture in a society desperate to modernize.

To some voters, however, these parties challenged the military in the borrowed language of democracy. In a political season notable for the absence of substantive discussion, the religious parties raised issues of foreign and domestic policy and stood firm on a return to constitutional rule. This doesn't make them democrats, but for the disenfranchised, it doesn't necessarily mean they're dictators, either.

Not that much democracy is being practiced in Pakistan these days: No one was completely clean and open in the elections. While some of the parties have labored for decades to win religion a place in politics, others have spent recent times in criminal pursuits, including murder and sectarian assassinations, setting fire to Christian villages and communities of Muslim minority sects, and implicating innocent citizens in trumped-up blasphemy charges that carry mandatory death sentences. In doing so, they have exposed the hypocrisies of Pakistani political life. After all, every government of the last 30 years has tolerated or been complicit in such behavior, and few politicians have lifted a hand to prevent the awful constitutional mess now confronting Pakistan.

Who rules whom, and how and why, is a problem that Pakistan's leaders have been loath to solve. While an impoverished population has borne the burdens of bad governance, almost no one has made an effort to solve the country's disputes about secularism and religious representation, democracy and dictatorship, and economic and political equality all challenge the political system. The rise of the religious right signals everything that is wrong with Pakistan's electoral environment -- not because it was left out, as happened in Algeria, or because its ideas about constitutional rule are always dangerous, or because it will ineluctably work its way around to renewed terrorism in the shadow of the Hindu Kush -- or because it unexpectedly won so many seats. Rather, the rise of the right echoes the misrule that has plagued Pakistan for so long.

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