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Published: Saturday, 10/26/2002

Pakistan embarks on new era of uncertainty

The recent general elections in Pakistan have ushered in yet another era of uncertainty in that country. Until the final count, there was widespread suspicion that Pakistani president Gen. Pervez Musharraf had already arranged the outcome by engineering defections from the Pakistan Muslim League, the party of the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. According to pundits, once in power the king's party would rubber stamp everything the president wants, including constitutional amendments that he earlier made to strengthen his position.

Instead, for the first time in Pakistan's history, Mutahida Majlas-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of six disparate religious parties, swept the polls in two of the four provinces and garnered enough seats in the parliament to deny a majority government to other mainstream parties. Their success at the polls introduces a new dimension in U.S.-Pakistan relations and an unpredictable variable in Pakistan's commitment to the war against terrorism.

The voters were angry with the two main parties, Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML), for incompetence and rampant corruption during their rule. Since 1989 these two parties have taken turns at the helm of the country. Both of their leaders are in exile, Ms. Bhutto in London and Mr. Sharif in Saudi Arabia, but they continue to cast a long shadow on Pakistani politics.

In 1997 Mr. Sharif returned to power with an overwhelming majority in the parliament. Within three years he ran the economy into the ground, assumed dictatorial powers, and took on the army. He also made the mistake of firing then army chief Pervez Musharraf, who was at the time out of the country for a conference. When Mr. Sharif refused to allow General Musharraf's plane to land in the country, the army took over and sent the prime minister home.

In the past, Pakistani religious parties have been noteworthy for their failure at the polls. In making a choice between the mosque and the parliament, the voters listened to the mullahs but voted for the politicians. This time, however, the mullahs were able to convince the voters otherwise. Increasing number of Pakistanis, particularly those along the northwest frontier of the country, view America's war on terrorism as a latter-day crusade against Islam and Muslims. MMA exploited that sentiment by telling the voters that a vote against them would be a vote against Islam. This markedly skewed but simple approach to a complex issue was effective.

The religious grouping in MMA have nothing in common except the religious cloaks they wear. They differ from each other on political issues and even on the interpretation of some of the thorny religious issues like the role of women in and the freedom of expression in arts and entertainment to name a few.

It is questionable whether they would be able to set aside their differences for the greater good of the country. Equally questionable is their vision of a moderate democratic society. Most of them are hopelessly stuck in a 7th- century mindset that glorifies a system of governance that existed in the very early history of Islam. The implementation of an ancient model of governance, noble and pertinent at the time but out of step in a diverse 21st century society, would lead to international isolation and economic disaster. Already some of the newly elected members of the parliament and provincial assemblies are promising the enforcement of Sharia law a la Taliban.

As of now they have promised to follow the 1973 constitution that in many ways is a rather liberal document. It is possible that Jamaat-e-Islami, the dominant and somewhat moderate party in the coalition would have a moderating influence on other factions. Its leader, Qazi Hussain Ahmad (a college contemporary of mine), is a pragmatic man.

President Musharraf (and by extension the U.S.) should accept the verdict of the people. MMA should be invited to form governments in the two provinces where they have majority. They should also be given an opportunity to form a central government if they can cobble a majority with other parties. At the end of the day the mullahs would have to prove to the voters that they are capable of running the country as well as visiting the mosques five times a day.

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