Pakistan Election

12 February 2008

Pakistan Election

 By Gwynne Dyer

The opinion polls could be wrong by as much as ten or fifteen percent, and they’d still tell you a lot about the state of Pakistani public opinion. As the country heads into the election that was postponed for six weeks after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December, what the polls are saying, basically, is that the president, Pervez Musharraf, is about as popular as piles.

The elections on 18 February are for the National Assembly (parliament), so they do not directly threaten the former general’s grasp on power. Musharraf had himself re-elected to the presidency last October (after attempting to dismiss the chief justice of the supreme court, whom he suspected of planning to challenge the validity of the process). But the real game is about whether he stays in power or not, and that is very much in doubt.

The depth of his unpopularity is truly impressive. A poll conducted recently by the international Republican Institute, a right-wing American organisation for the promotion of democracy abroad, gave Musharraf’s approval rating as a scant 15 percent. That is a 50 percentage-point drop since November. Seventy-five percent of respondents said that Musharraf should resign — and 62 percent believed that his government had some role in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

This popular conviction that Musharraf had Bhutto killed is very useful to the party she led, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), as it guarantees a large sympathy vote. It also explains the PPP’s stubborn insistence, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, that Benazir Bhutto was shot and not killed by the subsequent explosion. It seems a niggling detail to outsiders, but it matters electorally since the Pakistani public tends to believe that it is extreme Islamists who blow people up, whereas the government would employ snipers or other shooters.

A rival poll conducted at the same time by another US-based organisation, Terror-Free Tomorrow, produced almost identical results. These are not numbers that the Bush administration would be eager to hear, since Musharraf is its protege. He has been Washington’s loyal ally in the “war on terror” since September, 2001, and his government has been rewarded with about $10 billion in American aid.

Given all this, the IRI’s report that 89 percent of Pakistanis oppose any cooperation with America’s “war on terror” would be especially unwelcome to Washington. Whatever their flaws, the figures have not been manipulated to serve the purposes of the US government. So what do these polls tell us about the outcome of the election?

They say that Musharraf’s tame party in the parliament, the Pakistan Muslim League — Qaid-e-azam (PML-Q), will be thoroughly humbled in the election., winning as little as 14 percent of the popular vote. Bhutto’s PPP, now led by her husband Asif Ali Zardari, will benefit greatly from her death, winning half the votes cast and emerging as the biggest party in the new parliament.

The party of Nawaz Sharif, the man whom Musharraf ousted as prime minister when he carried out his military coup in 1999, is predicted to get 22 percent of the vote. So between them the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) are likely to get almost three-quarters of the votes. That is probably enough to drive Musharraf from the presidency if the leaders of the two opposition parties can stick together.

This is not at all what Washington intended when it put its money on Benazir Bhutto. Her return from exile began as part of a US scheme to shore up Musharraf’s tottering rule by engineering an alliance between the two.

The idea was that Bhutto, in return for an amnesty on the various corruption charges facing her, would come home, win the parliamentary election, and become prime minister. In return, Washington’s favourite Pakistani general would finally take off his uniform (three years after mandatory retirement age) and emerge as a civilian president enjoying Bhutto’s support.

No detail was overlooked. Even the date of the amnesty was chosen so that Bhutto would benefit from it while her main civilian rival, Nawaz Sharif, would not. But Benazir Bhutto’s assassination changed all that.

Whatever the Pakistani public chooses to believe, it is most unlikely that Musharraf organised Bhutto’s assassination. The political compact between the two was far from settled, but it was still Musharraf’s best hope of clinging to power. That hope is now fading fast.

On Tuesday Sharif and Zardari met in Lahore and pledged to form a coalition government after the election. It is an unlikely coalition, for the two parties have traditionally loathed each other, but if it last long enough it would have the political strength to impeach Musharraf, whose “re-election” last year was deeply suspect from a legal point of view.

That would be deeply distressing for the Bush administration, which would lose its most important and obedient ally in the “war on terror.” But it would be a very good thing for Pakistan, whose 165 million people deserve something better than an unending parade of generals ruling over them. And it would probably also be a good thing for the real struggle against terrorism in the long run, since the “war on terror” has been the main recruiting agent for Islamist extremism ever since 2001.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“This…shooters”; and “No…that”)