Pakistan's parliamentary elections may be the last call for the country to remain as a functional democracy, the signs are anything but hopeful.
Ethnic and provincial differences, religious zeal, feudal control, dynastic politics, corruption, and army's ambition - all have prevented Pakistan's emergence as a strong nation. The betrayal of Pakistan by the politicians is a long and sad story. There can hardly be any doubt that as much as the army might be blamed for some of the crises that Pakistan has gone through in its short history, the politicians deserve an even greater share. They have been so corrupt and have created such confusion and chaos by manipulating religious, ethnic, provincial and linguistic issues and sentiments; it was this incapacity of the political leadership that led to the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971. Because of the failure of the civilian leadership there have been repeated military takeovers. It is, therefore, hardly any surprise that there is not one leader from any of the competing factions who has the capability to hold Pakistan together and take it past this crisis. All without exception have been a part of Pakistan's problem rather than its solution. There is now increasing concern regarding further breakup of the country.
In Sindh, the stronghold of Benazir Bhutto's PPP or the Peoples' Party of Pakistan, a majority of the people are poor serfs subservient to the landowners. Loyalty demands that their feudal masters be obeyed and supported. This explains Benazir's will and her husband Zardari's claim now to lead the PPP and hopefully to become the next prime minister.
In Punjab that has remained dominant in the power politics of Pakistan, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) that supports President Musharraf, expects to win a major chunk of seats in the National Assembly. Punjab has been the PML's mainstay. However the PML has been split into two factions - PML (Q) and PML (N). The former which claims to be the original or the one founded by Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, is actually a creation of President Musharraf. The latter group supports the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who was ousted by Musharraf. Actually the split happened over the support for Sharif.
The other party that is a coalition partner of President Musharraf and controls the port city of Karachi, the most populous city of Pakistan, and the capital of Sindh is the MQM or the Mutahidda (Muhajir) Qaumi Mahaz. The party that champions the cause of Urdu-speaking migrants from India became well organized quickly after its birth in the early 1980s. After it achieved a modest amount of success in the elections early it split into two factions fighting each other for control.
Ultimately the control was taken over by mostly reactionary and a shortsighted faction. All of this has caused a decline in their appeal. Yet because of Karachi's vital place in Pakistan's economy and politics they have a lot of influence.
The other parties (for example the religious groups) which had only played a nuisance role in Pakistani politics until recently have now been empowered only because of Musharraf's need to maintain a coalition and hold on to the reins of power. In the last elections the religious groups were able to amass a lot of power in the two most troubled provinces of Pakistan (the Frontier and Balochistan) where they control the provincial assemblies. They have always had more slogans than policies up their sleeves and can hardly help Pakistan out of the mess. The uneducated and poor masses who take religion seriously have swelled their ranks in more recent years. The Lal Masjid episode in Islamabad highlights the pervasive influence of the narrowly defined world view that religious groups propagate. Such extremist groups have become a significant part of Pakistan's problem.
However the group that holds all the cards in Pakistan's politics is the army. They are the most organized group with deep roots in the country's economy and power structure.
It is against this background that the people of Pakistan went to the polls yesterday. Pakistan needs a strong government - a government that can deal summarily with all forms of extremism. This unfortunately does not seem to be on the cards even if one party wins a majority in the National Assembly. We can only expect a government that is weak and unstable.
There are some hopeful signs yet. This time it seems that the army chief Gen. Kayani is trying to steer the army away from the paroxysms of power. This may lead to constitutional processes being re-established. With the army helping in maintaining law and order, a responsible government may emerge that is transparent as well as accountable.
Dr. Nazir Khaja is a founding member of Council of Pakistani-American Affairs. He can be reached via email at: [email protected]