Pakistanis have spoken. Despite low voter turnout, systematic prepolling conditions that did not favor free and fair elections, and looming security threats, Pakistanis cast their vote decisively against retired general President Pervez Musharraf and against the Islamist parties.
Despite numerous criticisms of the regime and allegations of a precooked election, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), the so-called King's party allied with Mr. Musharraf, suffered an absolute route.
Despite the accolades offered by imminent persons, there are allegations of irregularities. The leadership of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the party of deceased Benazir Bhutto, believes the government "selectively rigged" some constituencies to minimize their victories while plumping up the gains by the Pakistan Muslim-League-N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Leadership of the PPP contends this was done to constrain its power and options in forming the government. While it will take some time to determine the degree to which this election was or was not manipulated and by whom, the exercise seems to have passed the first test: Pakistanis appear pleasantly surprised and, indeed, there have been few signs of disaffection with the results.
Surely the electoral exercise surprised Mr. Musharraf's critics who expected widespread fraud. Despite expectations of violence, the voting was relatively peaceful. However, political stability remains elusive, as does the fate of Mr. Musharraf — with many voters and politicians calling for his departure from office.
Now that the votes have been cast and counted, the political parties have begun negotiating coalitions and concessions that ultimately will decide who will form the government at the center and in the provinces. Following the 2002 elections, it took some two months to finally anoint a prime minister.
While Mr. Musharraf is down, he may not be out. As parties seek to maximize their access to power, they may seek out curious bedfellows. The PPP could team up with Mr. Musharraf's PML-Q and take control of the center and of the critical Punjab Province. Such a pairing may give Mr. Musharraf a new lease on his political life, though the move may be unpalatable among the PPP's stalwart supporters who loathe the Musharraf government. The United States must be prepared to engage whoever emerges from this volatile mix of coalition politics, even if it means Mr. Musharraf's inevitable irrelevance.
While the United States and its allies may be relieved that left-of-center parties prevailed, questions still linger about Pakistan's ability to continue fighting Islamist militants in the border areas and within the interior. Mr. Musharraf did not need to take his public into confidence on this; however, the emergent prime minister must.
Since the onset of a judicial crisis in March 2007, Pakistani civil society has been energized. And as this vote demonstrates, the polity wants change. Pakistanis have long been dismayed by Mr. Musharraf's alliance with President Bush and attribute the rise in terrorism to Pakistan's alliance with the United States. It remains to be seen whether Pakistan's newly emerged civilian leadership will be able to mobilize the citizenry to continue fighting what is increasingly Pakistan's own war on terrorism.
U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson has won over many Pakistanis with her firm support of democracy in Pakistan, often taking positions that differed from U.S. State Department talking points. The Bush administration should act to consolidate this window of warming.
While some in Congress threatened to cut military aid to Pakistan in the event of widespread election rigging, the U.S. government should act now to expand investment in Pakistan's civil society and other civilian institutions. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, the bulk of Washington's assistance has bolstered Pakistan's military while paying scant attention to the very institutions vital to rehabilitating democracy in Pakistan.
The Pakistani voter has seized an important democratic opportunity, which the United States would be wise to support financially, diplomatically and politically. The time has come for the United States to demonstrate that it supports Pakistan's people — rather than the lone personality of Pervez Musharraf.
Christine Fair, a senior political scientist at the nonprofit Rand Corp., wrote this piece from Pakistan, where she observed the recent elections.
This commentary appeared in Washington Times on February 24, 2008