By Arif Rafiq
[Published in the Daily Star (Lebanon), Daily Times (Pakistan), and Guardian's Comment is Free]
President George W Bush rightly called Pakistan’s recent national and provincial elections “a victory for [its] people”. But, even as he uttered those words, his administration was working behind the scenes to subvert the will of Pakistan’s people by trying to dictate the composition of their next coalition government and prop up the election’s biggest loser, President Pervez Musharraf. Bush is playing a dangerous game, risking the collapse of Pakistan’s political process for the sake of his own legacy.
Millions of Pakistanis delivered a clear message at the polls. Collectively, they voted against Musharraf and religious extremists, and in favor of democracy, the rule of law, and good governance.
Nationally, no single party received a majority, but the centrist, democratic opposition won more than 70% of the national assembly seats. The Musharraf-allied faction of the Muslim League party (PML-Q) came in third, polling only 15%, despite the assistance of surgical vote-rigging. Most of its senior leaders were defeated in their constituencies – including one who hadn’t lost an election in 26 years. The PML-Q, created in 1999 by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, is now political deadwood.
An alliance between the two largest parties, the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League faction (PML-N) is what the country needs and what most Pakistanis want. The PPP and PML-N have the numbers to form a unity government. They also realize that this is perhaps their last chance to “save” Pakistan.
Together with the pro-democracy army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, this coalition can address Pakistan’s most pressing challenges, including terrorism. With the addition of smaller parties and independents to the coalition, they can also impeach Musharraf and restore the judiciary, which he had deposed. This is unpalatable to the Bush administration, which has helped keep Musharraf in power, despite the fact that 75% of Pakistanis want him to resign.
The Bush administration finds the PML-N’s nationalism and antagonism to Musharraf particularly troublesome. Sharif has called for Pakistan’s foreign policy to be debated in parliament, but supports continued cooperation with the United States. His party also wants the sacked Supreme Court justices to be restored.
The US government, however, endorsed the justice’s illegal removal, seeing the court’s insistence on constitutional accountability for Musharraf as complicating its regional objectives. The court, for example, required Musharraf to present alleged terror suspects – some of whom were likely “rendered” to Pakistan by the CIA – detained for years without government acknowledgment.
Of course, a popular, democratically elected government and an independent judiciary in Islamabad complicate relations with the US. Democracy is intrinsically messy, but it won’t jeopardise Pakistan’s partnership in the war on terror. The Bush administration, however, has become used to dealing with one man and is increasingly impatient. In its final year, it would like to increase the odds of a Republican victory in November’s US presidential election. Toward this end, progress in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be highly valuable.
As a result, the Bush administration is aggressively interfering in coalition talks between Pakistan’s political parties. It wants to pair the PPP with the discredited PML-Q and isolate the PML-N. US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, for example, has held a joint meeting with senior Musharraf advisor, Tariq Aziz, and PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower.
Vice-President Dick Cheney’s office also is reportedly playing an active role. Zardari, in a joint press conference with Sharif, refused to answer a question about whether there is pressure from the US to ally with Musharraf. But he and Sharif did agree “in principle” to form a government.
The Bush administration’s forceful manipulation of Pakistan’s political leadership is dangerous for both Pakistan and the US. Its favoured arrangement could divide the opposition, keep Musharraf ascendant, and provide continuity in the Pakistan army’s campaign against militants. But it would also likely de-legitimise the next government before it comes into power, rupture Pakistan’s largest political party, and create a nationalist backlash against the US.
The US needs to take a step back and let Pakistan’s political process proceed naturally. The end result might not be optimal, but if the Bush administration overplays its hand, it could find itself partnerless in Pakistan.
In cooperation with Project Syndicate, 2008.