The democratic desire of a divided country has yielded its fairest election ever, on lines not entirely unexpected: the assassinated Benazir Bhutto'sPakistan People'sParty (PPP) has emerged as the single largest party, followed by Shri Nawaz Sharif'sPakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). In a resounding snub to President Pervez Musharraf, the ?King'sparty? has bitten the dust; even his friendly mullahs have failed to shine in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Yet, far from offering immediate solutions to simmering issues, the election process may have thrown up fresh problems for the territory carved into an independent nation to serve Western strategic interests. As the West re-strategises to benefit from the new situation, the internal dynamics of a fractured democratic mandate and a discredited military-mullah axis may still cause Pakistan to implode. New Delhi would be advised to watch developments in the neighbouring country carefully.
As of now, public opinion and electoral logic dictate that the PPP and PML-N join hands to form the government. The selection of a Prime Minister (most likely Makhdoom Amin Fahim, PPP vice-chairman), will probably be the least difficult issue. For the present, real power in the PPP will vest with co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, but it is only a matter of time before hardliners like Aitzaz Ahsan (of Punjab) make their presence felt. Ahsan was in the forefront of the agitation to restore sacked Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry; and it was he who persuaded Benazir to return to Pakistan after she went back to Dubai following the bombing of her homecoming rally.
Ahsan may prove a natural ally to Nawaz Sharif, who is keen on reinstatement of sacked Supreme Court judges and the exit of President Pervez Musharraf. The former Prime Minister reiterated these demands as voting trends became clear, while Asif Zardari evaded them. But there can be little doubt that the Pakistani public wants reinstatement of the 60 ousted members of the superior judiciary, an early decision on the legality of Musharraf'sre-election as President in October 2007, and restoration of the 1973 Constitution.
The first test of the new coalition will be the validation of Gen. Musharraf'selection as civilian President. It will be easier to release Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and his brother judges from detention, and revoke the suspension of democracy. But Asif Zardari, like his late wife Benazir, has hinted at willingness to cohabit with Gen. Musharraf. While this may be welcomed in Washington, it will create conflict within the PPP and with Nawaz Sharif.
As of now, Zardari has postponed the inevitable by saying that issues concerning the judges would be taken to Parliament. But unless a compromise is worked out on these contentious issues between the major parties quickly, the new coalition regime may meet with failure sooner than expected.
However, the most problematic issues requiring immediate attention relate to the US war on terror, and the separate but related problem of armed jihadi terrorists that call the shots in regions bordering Afghanistan and Iran. As anti-America sentiments rise in the Muslim world, it is going to be difficult for a new democratic regime to support the American quest for intensified action against Al Qaeda in Baluchistan and the NWFP. Still less will it be possible to give Washington the right to act freely in these regions. It is pertinent that these regions were difficult to control even when the Musharraf-backed jihadi parties were in charge of Baluchistan and the NWFP; the situation now will be even more volatile as one does not know the true sentiments of the local populace since the Jamaat-i-Islami did not participate in the recent elections. It is certain, however, that anti-American feelings will run even higher. It is equally certain that America will make demands on the new regime, thus adding to domestic instability.
Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has indicated a desire to keep the military out of the political arena to refurbish its reputation as the one institution that keeps Pakistan together. But this only means that he will probably allow the PPP-PML-N coalition to ask Gen. Musharraf to step down as civilian President, or allow the Supreme Court to rule his election invalid. It does not rule out a behind-the-scenes role for the Army in Pakistan'sown compulsions to control armed militias. There is also no indication of how Gen. Kayani would leverage his supposedly good relations with America with the new regime.
Shri Nawaz Sharif is important in the new dispensation, and his ties with Saudi Arabia are more cordial than with America. Notwithstanding the Saudi-US friendship, the interests of the two countries are by no means co-terminus, and Saudi Arabia remains the principal financier of the Wahabi terrorism troubling the world. Add to this cocktail the growing Baluch desire for independence, and you have a recipe for implosion.
India may at best win a small reprieve out of Pakistan'scurrent problems. Keeping Pakistan united will be a more immediate concern that wrestling Jammu & Kashmir from one of the best armies in the world. Given Islamabad'sseething instability, New Delhi would do well to avoid dialogue on sticky issues that have eluded solution for six decades. A more far-sighted approach would be to work for re-integration of India'sbreakaway provinces as the old imperialist contrivance comes unstuck. Kosovo'sso-called independence is a signal that the map of the world, so painstakingly redrawn to its convenience by a once-ascendant Europe, is returning to its original, fractious, ethnic divisions. History may be telling India to return to her original size.