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Published: Thursday, 2/21/2008

Uncertainty for Pakistan

Pakistan's parliamentary elections have produced results that, from the point of view of both Pakistan and the United States are something of a jumble.

President Pervez Musharraf's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which has governed for five years under him, lost miserably in Monday's vote, finishing third among Pakistan's three major parties.

Given Mr. Musharraf's long alliance with the United States, beginning with the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and fortified by some $10 billion in U.S. aid, the vote against his party has to be seen as a rejection of the U.S. role in Pakistan. Pakistanis called this election a referendum on Mr. Musharraf's rule and U.S. policy toward Pakistan.

Perhaps even worse, the group that won the most seats in the election was the Pakistan Peoples Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated Dec. 27 after having returned to Pakistan from exile two months earlier. The PPP won basically on the strong feelings evoked by her death. The party itself is nominally headed by her son, a college student in England, but its de facto head is her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was tainted by charges of corruption during her years as prime minister and generally is considered by Pakistanis to be unsuitable to hold that office himself.

Mr. Musharraf has found his position as Pakistan's leader greatly weakened, first, by having stepped down as head of the army at America's encouragement, and, second, having been drubbed in the parliamentary elections. He now will find it increasingly difficult to deal with Pakistan's problems and to lead on what is left of possibilities for Pakistan-U.S. cooperation.

Most likely to emerge from the electoral results is a coalition government involving some combination of parties. It could be the two opposition parties arrayed against Mr. Musharraf's party, or one of them in alliance with his party against the other first or second-place finisher. Either way, it will be messy.

The problems of the country remain formidable. Pakistan's economy is shaky. Its northwest areas along the border with Afghanistan remain outside the control of the central government, in spite of the insertion of thousands of troops. The Baluchistan region is in simmering rebellion. Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons and its non-signature of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty remains an important issue as does its long-standing dispute with neighboring India over Kashmir.

It could be said that just the holding of democratic elections in the face of the problems that Pakistan faces is a triumph of the freedom that the Bush Administration has advocated. But the turnout was a low-for-Pakistan 35 percent, reflecting the fear of violence of many voters.

Add up the events of recent months - Mr. Musharraf's fall, Ms. Bhutto's death, elections with a low turnout, and murky results - and the result is uncertainty for U.S. interests in Pakistan.



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