A dictator defeated

Posted February 28, 2008

Farooq Sulehria is a prominent radical journalist and leading member of the Labour Party Pakistan.

Liaqat Bagh: On February 18, as the night set in, the lush green garden in Pakistan’s northern town of Rawalpindi was witnessing a very different scene. Unlike the December 27 bloody Benazir tragedy staged on its gates, this scene featured a crowd of several thousand cheering and chanting. Waving Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) flags, chanting “Jeay Bhutto” (“Long live Bhutto”) youth embraced and congratulated even those carrying PML (N) flags. Led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, for many years the PML (N) has been the PPP’s main rival. On February 18, as the Pakistani electorate used its right to vote for the ninth time since 1970, the two parties remained rivals. Yet they were all happy as the pro-Musharraf candidate, Shaikh Rashid, was defeated.

Since it was in this very constituency that Benazir Bhutto had been murdered, NA 55 became the focus for the national media. It was also here that the regime’s spokesperson Shaikh Rashid, former Information Minister, was contesting the elections. Over the last twenty years Rashid had won five times. Although he used to be a leader of PML (N), in 2002 he changed sides and joined the pro-Musharraf PML (Q). (This party has been commonly mocked as the Musharraf League.) Being Information Minister, Rashid defended regime’s unpopular actions. Thus after Musharraf’s on face on TV, his was the most hated.

Fearing his defeat in NA 55, Rashid contested from NA 56, a nearby constituency. I happened to meet Rashid three days before elections. Defeat was written on his face.

For the fear of bomb blasts, I travel by taxi instead of public bus. Though taxi is no guarantee, it helps gives a sense of security even if it is false. Every time I would take a taxi before the elections, I would question the driver: “Who’s going to win in Rawalpindi?” Every time, literally every time, the answer was same: “whoever, but no chance for this b@*!@^d Rashid.”

By election evening, long before TV channels had announced the results, Rawalpindi residents found out that Rashid had lost in both constituencies. In a first-past-the-post system, similar to that used in Britain, Rashid was not even a runner up. PML (N) candidates won both constituencies; PPP candidates were runners up.

Rashid was not the only victim of voters’ wrath. Another 22 ministers, including president of pro-Musharraf PML (Q), Shujaat Hussein, lost. Like Rashid, Shujaat lost from two constituencies. By the next morning, it was clear that PML (Q) suffered big losses.

An accompanying pleasant surprise was the crushing defeat of the religious fundamentalists. In 2002 elections, fundamentalists had emerged as third largest force bagging 66 National Assembly seats while forming their government in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). They had swept the province in 2002. This time they themselves were swept aside, maintaining only three seats in the National Assembly.

In the NWFP, the secular nationalist Peoples National Party (ANP) emerged as the largest party while Bhutto’s PPP came in as second largest. The ANP claims the legacy of Ghaffar Khan, known as Frontier Gandhi. Traditionally, the NWFP has been an ANP stronghold proud of its tradition of anti-imperialism, secularism and Pashtun-nationalism.

Until 1980s, the pro-Moscow Communist Party of Pakistan (legally banned in Pakistan since 1951) worked inside ANP’s predecessor (NAP or National Peoples Party). But in the 1990s the ANP joined hands with the right-wing pro-Musharraf forces to build a coalition government. When it came to corruption and financial scandals, the ANP ministers proved to be no different.

By now, the ANP has also given up any pretext of anti-imperialism and has reconciled itself with the End-of-History mantra. In the wake of 9/11, the ANP, instead of opposing U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, lent it full support. On the other hand, the religious fundamentalists vehemently opposed the U.S. invasion.

The country’s third largest province, the NWFP is inhabited by the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. Hence, the tribal population in NWFP saw the U.S. invasion as an attack on them. Fundamentalists cashed in on both religious and nationalist sentiments. They portrayed it as a battle between Islam and the “Christian West.”

The ANP, already discredited owing to the corruption of its ministers, had also become a U.S. pawn. Hence, it was decimated in 2002 elections and did not win even a single seat for the National Assembly. This time around, it has ten seats, emerging as the assembly’s fifth largest party.

The largest in National Assembly, bagging 87 seats out of 272, is Bhutto’s PPP. It is the strongest in Sindh, Bhuttos’ home province. However, it was the only party that showed a strong presence in all four provinces.

The PML (N) was a not-so-distant runner up, bagging 67 National Assembly seats. It is emerging as the largest party in Punjab, the country’s biggest province. In Baluchistan, the PML (Q) did well but failed to muster a simple majority. Most likely, the PPP will be able to build a coalition government here.

The left in Pakistan, never a strong force in electoral politics, was further marginalized. In the last round of elections, a member of a Trotskyist group, functioning as entrists in the PPP, was elected to the National Assembly. In this round He lost badly.

The constituents of AJT, an alliance of all major left formations including the Trotskyist Labour Party Pakistan, had joined APDM. The APDM, an alliance of 25 parties from the extreme right to the extreme left, announced an election boycott on the basis that the election would enable the Musharraf regime to survive. Prior to the murder of Benazir, the AJT campaign was picking up momentum but the situation radically changed after the tragic assassination. The event generated a sympathy wave for the PPP and translated into a high voter turnout despite threats of suicide bombings.

At the time of filing this report, negotiations are going on between various movers and shakers. The United States, shocked by the election results, is pushing the PPP to build a coalition government with pro-Musharraf forces. Meanwhile Nawaz Sharif and the media are demanding Musharraf’s resignation. The PPP has not taken a clear stand bit given the mood in Pakistan, any party going with Musharraf will find it difficult to carve out a space in a future political scenario. Meantime, headlines repeat the rumors that Musharraf is resigning.