By Farooq Sulehria
Liaqat Bagh: the lush green garden in Pakistan's northern town
of Rawalpindi was witnessing a very different scene on February
18 as the night set in. Unlike the bloody Benazir tragedy staged
on its gates on December 27, it was a thousands-strong crowd,
cheering and chanting. Waving Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) flags,
chanting Jeay Bhutto (long live Bhutto) youth would embrace and
congratulate even those carrying PML (N) flags.
For years, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, PML (N)
was Benazir's PPP main rival. The PPP and PML (N) went to polls
even on February 18, as Pakistani electorate used its right to
vote for 9th time since 1970, as rivals. They all were happy as
pro-Musharraf candidate, Shaikh Rashid, had been defeated in this
constituency. This very constituency, NA 55, had become focus
of media attention across Pakistan since it was here Benazir was
murdered. Also because it was here Musharraf regime's spokesperson
Shaikh Rashid, former Information Minister, was contesting elections.
He had been winning, five times in total, from this constituency
since 1988. He used to be a leader of PML (N) but he changed sides
in 2002 and joined pro-Musharraf PML (Q), commonly mocked as Musharraf
League. Being Information Minister, Rashid used to defend regime's
unpopular actions thus becoming most hated face on TV screens
after Musharraf's own (now-a-days-fast-wrinkling) face.
Fearing his defeat in NA 55, Rashid was also contesting from
NA 56, another constituency in Rawalpindi. I happened to meet
Rashid three days before elections. Defeat was written on his
For the fear of bomb blasts, I travel by taxi instead of public
buss. Though taxi is no guarantee yet it helps get a sense of
security even if it is false. Every time I would take a taxi before
elections, I would question the driver: 'who gonna win Rawalpindi'.
Every time, literally every time, the answer was same: 'whoever
but no chance for this b@*!@^d Rashid'.
Long before TV channels had announced, Rawalpindi residents on
the evening of February 18, had found out that Rashid had lost
in both constituencies. In first-past-the-post system, like Britain,
Rashid was not even runners up. It was PML (N) candidates, winning
both constituencies while PPP-men were runners up.
Rashid was not the only victim of voters' wrath. Another 22 ministers,
including president of pro-Musharraf PML (Q), Shujaat Hussein
had lost. Like Rashid, Shujaat also lost from two constituencies.
By next morning, it was clear that PML (Q) had lost.
An accompanying pleasant surprise was the crushing defeat of
fundamentalists. In 2002 elections, fundamentalists had emerged
as third largest force bagging 66 National Assembly seats while
forming their government in Frontier province (NWFP). They had
clean swept NWFP in 2002. This time they were swept aside themselves.
Only three seats in National Assembly.
In NWFP, it was secular nationalist Peoples National Party (ANP)
that had emerged as largest party while Bhutto's PPP as second
largest. The ANP claims the legacy of Ghaffar Khan, known as Frontier
Gandhi. Traditionally, NWFP has been a stronghold of ANP that
used to be proud of anti-imperialism, secularism and Pashtun-nationalism.
Until 1980s, pro-Moscow Communist Party of Pakistan (legally banned
in Pakistan since 1951) used to work inside ANP's predecessor
(NAP or National Peoples Party). The ANP in 1990s, joined hands
with right-wing PML (N) to build a coalition government. The ANP
ministers proved no different when it came to corruption and financial
scandals. By now, it had also given up any pretext of anti imperialism
and had reconciled itself with End-of-History mantra. In the wake
of S11, ANP instead of opposing US invasion of Afghanistan, lent
it full support. The fundamentalists vehemently opposed it. The
NWFP, country's third largest province, is inhabited by Pashtun
(largest ethnic group in Afghanistan). Hence, tribal population
in NWFP saw it as an attack on Pashtuns. Fundamentalists cashed
on both religious and nationalist sentiments. They portrayed it
as a battle between Islam and 'Christian West'. The ANP, already
discredited owing to the corruption of its ministers, by now had
also build itself an image of the US pawn. Hence, it was decimated
in 2002 elections. It did not win even as a single mandate for
National assembly. This time, it has ten mandates in National
Assembly, emerging as fifth largest party in National Assembly.
The largest in National Assembly, bagging 87 seats out of 272,
is Bhutto's PPP that emerged strongest in Sindh, Bhuttos' home
province. However, it was the only party that showed strong presence
in all four provinces. Not so distant runners up was PML (N),
bagging 67 National Assembly seats but emerging as largest party
in Punjab, country's biggest province. In Balochistan, PML (Q)
got maximum seats but failed to muster simple majority. Most likely,
PPP will be able to build a coalition government here.
The left in Pakistan, never a strong force in electoral politics,
was further marginalized. Last time, member of a Trotskyist group,
entrist in PPP, had a member elected to National Assembly as PPP
candidate. He badly lost this time. The constituents of AJT, an
alliance of all major left formations including Trotskyist Labour
Party, had joined APDM. The APDM, an alliance of 25 parties including
extreme right to extreme left, had announced a boycott of elections
on the plea that elections would help Musharraf regime survive.
Prior to the murder of Benazir, their campaign was picking up
but the situation, it seems, radically changed after the tragic
assassination. It generated a sympathy wave for PPP that also
translated into high turn out despite threats of suicide bombings.
At the time of filing this report, negotiations are going between
movers and shakers. The US, also shocked at election results,
is pushing PPP to build a coalition government with pro-Musharraf
forces while helping Musharraf stay in power. The PPP, has not
taken a clear stand on impeaching Musharraf while Nawaz Sharif
and media are demanding his resignation. Given the mood in Pakistan,
any party going with Musharraf will be finding it hard to find
a place in future political scenario here in Pakistan. Meantime,
rumours are making headlines that Musharraf is resigning. It should
not, therefore, come as any surprise if Musharraf, by the time
these lines reach the Internationalen readers, has resigned.