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From The Socialist newspaper, 27 February 2008

Pakistan elections: Crushing defeat for Musharraf, landslide for opposition parties

THE RESULTS of Pakistan's parliamentary elections came as a big surprise for Musharraf and his allies. President Musharraf was expecting a big victory. But the people have given a different verdict.

Khalid Bhatti, Socialist Movement Pakistan (CWI), Lahore

The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and Nawaz Sharif's PML-N (Pakistani Muslim League - Nawaz) have both emerged as winners. In the Musharraf camp, only the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) has been able to retain its vote bank and support.

The PPP is the largest party in the National Assembly with 90 seats out of 272, but fell short of a simple majority to form the government. The PML-N has also done well and came second on the national level with 70 seats.

Musharraf's PML-Q (Pakistani Muslim League [Quaid-e-Azam]) got only 40 seats. The biggest loser is the MMA - the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal religious parties' alliance - which won only five seats in total.

The turnout was 45% overall, not as low as many were predicting.

Big blow for Musharraf

The outcome of these elections is a big blow for Musharraf. The leaders of the PML-N, ANP (Awami National Party, Pashtun nationalists) and PPP have already made the demand for the resignation of Musharraf from the presidency.

Although he was elected president from the previous assemblies, he now needs to get a vote of confidence from the new ones - which seems impossible at the moment.

The new army chief has already started to distance himself from Musharraf. Many ex-generals, senior technocrats and political commentators are asking him to resign gracefully and hand over power to the elected leaders. He has refused.

Musharraf was confident after removing the rebellious judges and imposing Martial Law on 3 November 2007, that he had control of the situation. Since 9 March 2007, when he decided to get rid of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhary, whatever he has done to strengthen his position has proved counter-productive.

He tried to rig the elections but the army refused to become part of this plan. The new head of the army, Ashfaq Kayani, clearly instructed the intelligence agencies not to get involved in politics. Now Musharraf has started to realise that he has lost his strength after discarding the uniform of army chief.

Having held a firm grip on power for eight years, the former general and key US ally in the 'war on terror', will now have to make frantic deals with a hostile parliament that could, in theory, call for his impeachment.

Musharraf will become a 'lame duck' president. For him the most crucial issue will be his political survival rather than the 'war against terror'. He will do everything to retain power and continue as president.

If the PPP, PML-N and the NAP are going to form a coalition without the pro-Musharraf MQM then Musharraf's future will be bleak and he will not be able to last long.

Grand coalition

The most likely coalition government will consist of the PPP, PML-N and the ANP (Awami National Party). This will not be an easy and straightforward process. There are differences between these parties on many issues.

The PPP and ANP want to continue the present 'war on terror', but the PML-N wants to review this policy. The ANP and PPP are not interested in the restoration of the deposed judiciary, but the PML-N wants to restore them at any cost.

The PML-N takes an uncompromising stance against Musharraf but the PPP wants to demonstrate some flexibility with him. Each party will try to get maximum concessions from the others to satisfy its own supporters. The ANP will push for further provincial rights and autonomy.

If the PPP tried to form a government without the PML-N, then it would be an extremely fragile and unstable government which will not be able to last long. The establishment will try its best to bring a weak government in, that it can handle easily.

Short-lived illusions

The people are celebrating the victory of the opposition parties on the streets. They are happy that they have been able to defeat the PML-Q and the religious parties.

There are also some illusions about the new government. However, the working class and poor of Pakistan want food prices and other daily essential items reduced. They want justice, equality, better living, an end to poverty and repression.

All this cannot be achieved under the present system. The new government will not be able to solve these problems because it will continue the same free market economic policies pursued by the previous government. The present illusions will turn into disillusionment and then anger.

PPP made gains

Even though the PPP was able to win 90 seats in the national assembly and a majority in the Sindh provincial assembly, it has failed to convert the sympathy factor of Benazir Bhutto's assassination into a big electoral victory.

It got the largest share of votes with 30% nationally, but fell short of the 40% that had featured in all the predictions. The PPP got a big chunk of votes from rural Sindh, but failed to make much impression in Karachi and Hyderabad - the largest cities in Sindh province. In Punjab, it finished second behind PML-N.

The party leadership failed to win because it relied solely on the sympathy factor of Benazir Bhutto's killing and did not campaign around the issues faced by the poor masses and working class.

The leadership failed to assess the mood of the masses and lost ground to other parties in different areas. The PPP failed to attract the voters and poor masses in Punjab province, especially in the cities. These elections once again proved that the PPP is not enjoying the support of these layers as it did in the 1970s and 1980s.

It has lost its best opportunity to win enough seats to form a government on its own because it has no clear programme, strategy and slogans to mobilise the masses. The PPP failed to take a clear stance on the issue of the judiciary, price hikes and on the Musharraf regime.

Big swing to PML-N

The PML-N led by ex-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, emerged as the main winner in these elections. Nobody was expecting that the PML-N would win 70 seats. It completely routed the PML-Q and the PPP in the cities of Punjab. It won nearly 50% of seats in the Punjab but won 88% of urban seats. It failed to win any seat from the Sindh and Baluchistan provinces.

In the last election in 2002, it was only able to win 17 seats but now it finished with 70. PML-N leader, Nawaz Sharif, took a clear anti-Musharraf stance and promised to restore the deposed judges, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

His party ran its campaign on the issues that are faced by the poor masses. It used anti-establishment radical demagogy and slogans to get the support of working and middle class voters.

Nawaz Sharif succeeded in putting himself forward as an alternative to end Musharraf's rule and its tyranny. His party succeeded in mobilising both the right-wing middle class and pro-democracy working class and poor votes.

Religious parties

The biggest losers in these elections were religious fundamentalist parties. The MMA alliance only managed to win five national assembly seats.

In the 2002 elections, this alliance won 55 seats and also a clear majority in the provincial assembly of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) with 64 seats out of 99. But in this election it could only manage eight provincial assembly seats. In the NWFP the secular and liberal PPP and ANP won the majority of the votes.

The MMA had fully capitalised on the anti-American sentiments in NWFP after the imperialist aggression on Afghanistan.

But the MMA government in the province failed to solve any problems faced by the poverty-stricken masses. The people were also furious because the MMA failed to control the rising tide of religious extremism and militancy.

The election results nationally also reflect this trend and sentiments. The overwhelming majority of the population is not in favour of Talibanisation or religious fundamentalism.

In the Swat area of NWFP, where Islamist forces took over five cities a few months ago and the military operation is still going on, the secular nationalist ANP won all the national and provincial assembly seats.

The main leaders of the religious alliance have lost to PPP and ANP candidates. The Socialist Movement, Pakistan (CWI) correctly predicted the demise of religious parties.

Class alternative

The election results clearly show that the working masses and poor peasants want change. They have voted for opposition parties to bring change and improve their lives.

But the PPP, PML-N and other opposition parties do not want a real change in the system. They represent the same ruling class and want to defend their system and interests.

There is no party of the masses and the working class which can defend them and work for their rights and interests. The working class urgently needs its own party with a clear programme of radical change and socialism.

All the reactionary forces that have been defeated in the elections will come back if the present rotten capitalist and state structure is not changed fundamentally. The parties and leadership of the ruling class will have nothing to do with that.

The Socialist Movement Pakistan is fighting to form and build a new party of the working class and poor masses. These elections and a new capitalist government will not solve anything, including the deep-rooted political crisis in Pakistani society.

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In The Socialist 27 February 2008:

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