Analysis: Coalition building, Pakistan style

The Pakistani election produced an earthquake in the nuclear-armed nation's political landscape.

Musharraf 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Musharraf 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
This week's Pakistani election produced an earthquake in the giant, nuclear-armed nation's political landscape, leaving President Pervez Musharraf with very little backing among the new legislators who will form the next government. The ruling PML-Q party suffered major losses (it won 40 seats, down from 118 in 2002). The Islamic alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, also fared badly, securing only six seats, down from 60 in 2002. The winners were former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which rose from 17 seats to almost 70, and the Independents, who secured 34 seats. The Pakistan People's Party, the party of recently assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, won 87 seats, eight more than in 2002. At the heart of the parliamentary election was increasing anger toward the government and particularly Musharraf, whom many Pakistanis blame for the increase in violence, the lack of democracy and rising living costs (the price of flour has almost doubled in the last few years). As the largest legislative faction, the Pakistan People's Party led by Asif Ali Zardari faces the unenviable task of forming a government, probably together with Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. This will be a problematic coalition as the Pakistan People's Party is center-left, while the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is more comfortable with Islamic conservatism. Moreover, the two parties have different key demands, with Zardari wanting a UN investigation of the murder of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, in December, while Sharif wants to see Musharraf impeached and the Supreme Court justices he dismissed returned to office. As to the question of whether the election was democratic and truly representative of the wishes of the people, one cannot approach the Pakistani situation assuming the characteristics of a full-fledged democracy. Pakistan is a poor country with feudalistic characteristics. According to Ijaz Shafi Gilani of Gallup International Pakistan, the feudal landlords in Pakistan control around 20 percent of the vote. Their power stems from two key elements: their vast land holdings on which millions of Pakistanis subsist, and a corrupt and inefficient state bureaucracy which allows the landlords to dictate the politics of their region. Thus, for example, Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto's cousin, owns around 10,000 acres of land on which thousands of poor sharecroppers live. It is to him that they turn for direction on all matters, including on how to vote. In the words of Bhural Khan, a 51-year-old villager in Ghotki, Sindh province, "In case there is a dispute over something, it is the feudal lord who comes to our help, not the police... The courts and police are far beyond our reach and take time [for] judgment and settlements, but in this [feudal] system, one does not have to wait long for immediate justice." Second, it must be remembered that in large parts of Pakistan, women, who number around 30 million electors, were prevented from voting. There is evidence of this, not only in the tribal areas but also in Punjab province. Promoting democracy and political reconciliation in Pakistan is no easy matter, and it is unlikely that the election will end the many troubles that ravage the country. If anything, the election suggests that Pakistan is in for a rough period, as divisions are running high and lines have been drawn in the sand. Thus, if the Pakistan People's Party, as the largest party, is asked to form a government, the question that arises is who it will nominate for prime minister, and thus who will need to work with Musharraf (if he is to see out his term of office, which ends in 2012). The party's de facto leader, Asif Ali Zardari, cannot serve in that capacity for two reasons: first, because he did not contest a seat in the election, and second, because of his criminal convictions. A likely candidate is Makhdoom Muhammad Amin Fahim, who comes from a prominent Pakistani family. Another possible candidate is Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz; however he is also barred from that office (at least for the moment) because he did not contest a seat in the election. Moreover, Sharif is not covered by the National Reconciliation Ordinance that Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf signed in October. The ordinance allowed Bhutto to return to Pakistan and contest the elections. Dr. Isaac Kfir lectures on International Relations at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.