Explaining the Pakistani election results.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 19 2008 6:36 PM

Musharraf Powerless, Islamists Defeated

What happened in the Pakistani elections?

Pervez Musharraf. Click image to expand.
Pervez Musharraf

Heading into Monday's parliamentary elections, Pakistan desperately needed good news. Bombs, protests, and President Pervez Musharraf's authoritarian impulses have made almost daily headlines and created the impression of a country spiraling toward chaos. Last year, Islamic militants detonated, on average, one suicide bomb per week in Pakistan, including the attack that killed more than 140 people at Benazir Bhutto's homecoming in October and the one that assassinated her in December. As the pro-Taliban insurgency gathered strength this winter, a bloody Election Day seemed inevitable. But Monday's poll results, while consistent with Pakistan's recent history in their pure unpredictability, finally gave people a taste of good news. Besides being largely free of violence (two dozen died in isolated skirmishes, but suicide bombers stayed away), voters rejected the two players in Pakistani politics that scare—and confuse—Americans most: Musharraf and the Islamists.

The elections proved nearly everyone—including me—terribly wrong. They also illustrated the complexity and dynamism of Pakistani society. I lived in Pakistan for the last two years and watched the run-up to the elections closely, beginning with the suspension of the chief justice of the supreme court in March 2007, through the state of emergency in November, and the media restrictions that followed. After traveling to every province and speaking to hundreds of people, I grew convinced that a free and fair election was impossible. Musharraf simply couldn't afford to lose. And yet, without an institutional base of support in the army (he officially retired in late November) or a political base in his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (Q), he knew he would do just that in transparent polls.

The PML (Q) finished third, behind Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharif's faction of the PML, making Musharraf effectively appear more powerless than ever. As president, he can still dissolve parliament whenever he wants, but the parliament also has the ability to impeach him. He is in a less than desirable position.

How could Musharraf have let this happen? It wasn't just lesser-known figures in his party who lost their seats; big personalities fell, too. Sheikh Rashid, the mustachioed, cigar-smoking Musharraf confidant who served as both minister of information and minister of railways during the last government, lost in Rawalpindi, the first defeat of his 30-year political career. Similarly, the president of the PML (Q) was defeated. "This election will come down to whether you are for or against Musharraf," a party worker told me at a PPP rally outside Islamabad in December. He couldn't have been more correct.

While the opposition parties campaigned on the shortcomings of Musharraf's regime (inflation, food shortages, deteriorating law and order), Musharraf's cronies weren't adept enough to recognize that public opinion had turned against them, and they continued to tell poor, hungry, downtrodden Pakistanis of all the good that Musharraf had done for them. According to Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who was in Islamabad observing the elections, Musharraf admitted that "people have spoken, results are clear, and [I am] prepared to abide by and cooperate with whatever the ensuing coalition government comes forth with." That could eventually include a one-way ticket out of Pakistan.

Perhaps the most significant development of the election was the drubbing received by the Islamist parties. In 2002, a six-party coalition known as the Muttahida-Majles-e-Amal, or MMA, won more than 10 percent of the popular vote and grabbed more than 60 seats in the 342 National Assembly. The presence of the Islamists in parliament frightened Western governments, which feared that the mullahs would increase their share of power with each election. Monday's results showed that the MMA's rise was better understood as a political hiccup rather than the vanguard of a mass movement. As of late Tuesday, the MMA had won just five seats. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the head of the Islamist alliance, lost in his hometown to a thirtysomething law school graduate from the PPP.

Does this mean the end of Islamism in Pakistan? Not quite. In fact, while the defeat of Musharraf's political allies in the PML (Q) signals a new political leadership in Islamabad, the defeat of the MMA could also signal a new political and religious leadership in the troubled areas along the border with Afghanistan. In the North West Frontier Province, where the MMA formed the provincial government last term, the Islamists' vote bank was a combination of die-hards who desired the creation of an Islamic state and those less ideologically driven who were attracted to the MMA's promises of justice, economic renewal, and security. This time around, the latter voted for the Awami National Party. The former, such as Iqbal Khan of the Swat Valley, joined the Taliban.

Last October, Khan invited me to his home for dinner, where he proudly displayed a bookcase full of al-Qaida paraphernalia—letters from Mullah Omar, video messages from Osama Bin Laden, and a backpack that Ayman al-Zawahiri apparently left behind after a visit. He, like all his neighbors in their remote village, voted for the MMA in 2002, hoping the Islamists in parliament would fulfill their pledge to implement sharia law. But when they not only failed to do that but were increasingly viewed as being just as corrupt as their predecessors, Khan and his cohorts withdrew their support from the politicians and shifted their allegiances to the militants.

Though Khan has since been arrested, hundreds of other pro-Taliban militants are still lurking inside the Tribal Areas and in the Swat Valley. On Feb. 6, 2008, the Pakistani government and the Taliban agreed to a cease-fire, which many believe explains the lack of twisted cars, bloody limbs, headless bodies, and other suicide bombing debris on Election Day. But what did the Taliban get in return? Their ambitions are, in many cases, confined to the establishment of Taliban-ruled enclaves. For, unlike in Afghanistan a decade ago, when the Taliban piled into pickup trucks and overran the government in Kabul, the Pakistani Taliban faces a significantly stronger army and state to conquer. Nawaz Sharif already announced that he favors dialogue, rather than confrontation, with the Taliban. None of the other candidates has offered a compelling counterinsurgency strategy.

Monday's election reminded observers that, besides being considered the "world's most dangerous country," Pakistan could also be described as the world's most unpredictable country. It remains to be seen how long it can ride this wave of good news.

Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of To Live or to Perish Forever. He is a 2010 International Reporting Project fellow in Russia.