Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2003, page 34

The Subcontinent

Democracy Is Back in Pakistan as Religious Parties Emerge as Serious Political Force

By M.M. Ali

It took more than a month after the Oct. 10 elections for Pakistan’s political parties to agree on a coalition government. With no single party having obtained a clear majority, the three leading contenders—the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam group), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the Majlis-e-Muttahida Mahaz (MMA, comprising six Islamic parties)—went through a variety of contortions before finally reaching a compromise. Eventually the Muslim League (Q), with the help of a handful of break-away PPP members terming themselves the PPP Forward Bloc, was able to come up with 172 members to achieve a one-member parliamentary majority. Zafarullah Khan Jamali, a politician from Baluchistan province, was elected leader of the National Assembly and hence Pakistan’s new prime minister. Almost all the PPP Forward Bloc members have been named ministers in the new cabinet. Subsequent weeks saw the Forward Bloc increase in numbers and join the National Assembly’s governing ranks.

Jamali is Pakistan’s 20th prime minister, and the first from Baluchistan. The most significant aspect of the country’s current political landscape, however, is the emergence of religious parties as a political force to be reckoned with. Although the MMA did not join the ruling coalition, it is being accorded political respect for the first time in Pakistan’s 54-year history. The MMA leadership played a significant role during the post-election political negotiations. The faces of the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Qazi Husain Ahmed and Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, as well as of Maulana Fazlur Rehman of Jamiat-e-Islami Pakistan, are now familiar ones in households throughout the country.

While there are those who suggest that it was pressure from Washington that kept the MMA out of the government, this is not the case. The MMA is not a cohesive political party, but rather a coalition formed purely for electoral purposes. Its members belong to different religious schools of thought, often in opposition to each other. Although Pakistan came into being in 1947 as a separate homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims, the country’s Islamic organizations have always existed on the fringes of political life. Only the Jamaat-e-Islami has been organized to any degree, and even it has never fared terribly well in national elections. Not until the 1980s, during the regime of Gen. Zia ul-Haq, did Pakistan’s religious parties receive government patronage, gaining ground during the following decade with the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban.

It is highly doubtful that the MMA will remain a cohesive force either within the National Assembly or outside it. The performance of MMA state governments in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan, a region bordering Afghanistan, will do much to determine its political future. Whatever its national presence, however, the MMA’s emergence as a political force in Pakistan does have regional significance.

The election’s biggest losers were the parties associated with Musharraf’s two predecessors.

The Muslim League (Q) comprises former members of Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League and/or others who enjoy local influence and are out to cash in by hanging on to Pervez Musharraf’s coattails. The election’s biggest losers were the parties associated with Musharraf’s two predecessors: Sharif’s Muslim League, and Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). With the formation of the Forward Bloc by some of its members, the latter is becoming badly splintered. If it is able to form a coalition government in the Sindh province, PPP may consider itself lucky. The Muslim League (Q) has formed its government in the country’s largest province, Punjab.

The election’s most contentious issue was the constitutional changes Musharraf instituted throughout 2002 via numerous ordinances, something the opposition groups strongly opposed. The MMA and the PPP continue to term the ordinances “extra judicial” and want them abrogated. This, however, would take a two-thirds parliamentary majority. If some compromise is not reached, a great deal of the National Assembly’s time is likely to be spent (i.e., wasted) on the issue.

Despite the fact that President Musharraf seems to be safely ensconced for the next five years, he was not completely satisfied with the October election results. His disappointment in the National Assembly make up is likely to be further aggravated with the formation of the Senate in mid-December, when opposition parties will be able to obtain their proportionate representation in the upper house. Musharraf and his Muslim League ”˜Q’ party, now led by Prime Minister Jamali, will continue to entice opposition members to cross over and join its ranks. That, after all, is how politics is played in the subcontinent.

Apart from national politics, Musharraf is likely to face two new and very difficult issues—both relating to the United States. The U.S. media’s accusation that North Korea has developed nuclear weapons with the assistance of Pakistan is likely to resurface once the Iraq issue is resolved. The second quandary is the position that Pakistan will be called upon to take should war with Iraq become inevitable. Given the new parliament’s large religiously oriented opposition, Musharraf will not have the same luxury of making independent decisions he has enjoyed the past three years. In addition, things are still far from settled in Pakistan’s next-door neighbor Afghanistan. And, to the discomfiture of many, including Pakistan, Osama bin Laden’s name continues to pop up periodically.

Both internally and externally, then, Islamabad faces serious political challenges in the coming months.

Elections in India-Occupied Kashmir

Elections in the Indian-occupied part of Kashmir coincided with those held in Pakistan in October 2002. While Pakistan welcomed international observer teams, however, India disallowed any outside observers in the Srinagar polls. A good part of the world, it appears, is ready to certify as “democratic” any country where elections are held—under any conditions.

According to press reports, over 700,000 Indian troops and para-military units herded unwilling Kashmiri men and women to the polling booths on four different dates in various parts of the state. The All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), the main Kashmiri Muslim political group, had called for a boycott of the elections. Neutral observers reported that no more than 10 to 15 percent were forced to vote.

Despite the vote-rigging, repression and the strong backing of India’s ruling Baharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, the National Conference (NC) headed by Farooq Abdullah lost the vote to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) headed by Mufti Mohammed Saeed and supported by the Indian National Congress. Disagreeing with the BJP’s analysis, PDP Vice President Mehbooba Mufti said the root cause of unrest in Kashmir is “the alienation of the people.”

Like the NC, the PDP has no standing among Kashmiris. Ever since the “elections,” in fact, unrest in the Valley has increased visibly. There have been several incidents of violence, bomb and land mine explosions in which numerous Indian soldiers and others have been killed. This resistance has been going on for a number of years now. A report by Rama Laxmi in the Nov. 24 Washington Post entitled “Kashmir’s Leaders Struggle to Deal With Feared Police” identified among other government agencies the Special Operations Group (SOG), of which Laxmi said “the group is accused of detaining people without cause and indulging in extortion, custodial killings and forced disappearances.” Laxmi also quoted Ravi Nair, director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center in Delhi, as saying, “There is no accountability in SOG. It is banditry in uniform.”

PDP Vice President Mehbooba acknowledges that the SOG is a “law unto itself. They are killers.” The Indian army chief in Kashmir, however, defends the SOG. Despite having received thousands of adverse reports about the SOG, the official position is that “suspected individuals should be jointly questioned by the SOG, the army, the border police, the state police and the intelligence agencies.”

This is India’s version of democracy in Kashmir. It is estimated that, in the past eight years, over 70,000 civilians have been killed in Kashmir, with many more maimed and raped.

Gujarat Elections

As the Indian state of Gujarat readies for elections, the embers of Muslim killings and arson are still smoldering in the capital of Ahmedabad. State chief minister Narender Modi of the ruling BJP is running for re-election. The Times of India, the country’s leading English-language daily newspaper, said on Nov. 24: “In the worst ever indictment of the BJP government in Gujarat after the communal riots, the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal headed by retired Supreme Court judge Justice Krishna Iyer, released a comprehensive report on the ”˜genocide’ in which over 1,000 people were killed. The report said: The...carnage in Gujarat was an organized crime perpetrated by the chief minister [Modi] and his government.”

The report graphically detailed how the carnage moved from one Muslim neighborhood to another. Regardless of all the evidence collected by neutral observers, however, Indian Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani has defended Modi, and no charges have been brought against him.

Prof. M.M. Ali is a Washington, DC-based specialist on South Asia and a consultant with the United Nations Development Program.