Sandeep Dikshit

NEW DELHI: The strategic community here heaved a sigh of relief over the by and large fair polls in Pakistan.

It is unanimous that President Pervez Musharraf may find it increasingly difficult to hold on to power, the U.S. would play a major role in installing Asif Zardari as Prime Minister and the army would stay apolitical under its new chief.

The near wipe-out of fundamentalist parties augurs well for the future but Benazir Bhutto’s assassination had robbed Nawaz Sharif of a few seats and he would be the man to watch in the future.

According M.K. Bhadrakumar, former diplomat, despite the patchy seat distribution among various parties, voting has been more or less peaceful. This is a point also emphasised by the former Foreign Secretary, Salman Haider, and veteran diplomat G. Parthasarathy.

At the same time, hard realities would come to the surface because of historical contradictions due to different regional and social bases of Mr. Zardari-led Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Mr. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).

Eye on the horizon

According to Mr. Bhadrakumar, Mr. Sharif might prefer to rule over the Punjab province by proxy and choose to build his image as a credible Opposition leader at the Centre with an “eye on the horizon.” Having spent over a decade tracking developments in Pakistan during his diplomatic service, Mr. Bhadrakumar points out that PPP won more seats due to “artificial circumstances” while the PML(N) was correspondingly denied the opportunity to gain more.

Any ruling coalition would be in a state of turmoil, which would mean that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, “as long as [the coalition] lasts,” could use the unsteady ruling coalition as a balancing factor for himself. “Whatever be the composition of the government, the ruling dispensation would have legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Therefore, its policies and programmes would have a greater degree of acceptability. The U.S. would be interested in keeping Mr. Zardari as Prime Minister,” he feels.

Mr. Haider believes the polls are the beginning of the end for the Pakistan President. “The polls start the terminal decline of Gen. Musharraf. He’s not going to have friendly Parliamentarians. There is every chance of people whittling away at the authority he gave himself.” The Pakistan President would have survived had PPP or PML(Q) done badly. But with neither strong enough to control Parliament, “another escape route for him has been blocked.”

Mr. Parthasarathy also believes the elections have been a “serious setback” to Gen. Musharraf with the “King’s Party,” the PML (Qaid-e-Azam) coming third in most seats. The question now is will Mr. Zardari opt for a coalition government or receive support from the outside? “He might not align with Mr. Sharief’s PML (N) as that would be contradictory to what both sides have been professing so far.” But the veteran diplomat feels that the U.S. would be able to install Mr. Zardari at the helm. A more logical arrangement would be for the PPP to take the support of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Awami National League (ANL) with elements from the PML (Q) which seems set to disintegrate due to dissent.

New Delhi, he felt, made the mistake of not making the back channel dialogue with Gen. Musharraf public. The successor government might not like to discuss Kashmir and other issues as per the outline chalked out by the present Pakistan President.

Positive development

A positive development is the ouster of the Islamist parties from Baluchistan and North-Western Frontier provinces, which will give the Taliban less political space to operate. According to Mr. Parthasarathy, it remains to be seen whether the interim ceasefire with Taliban leader Behtullah Mehsud can be sustained remains to be seen. But the bottomline is that the Pakistan state cannot make enemies with the U.S. and the Taliban.

Mr. Haider concurs, “A positive sign is that the Islamist parties have taken a beating. It shows the temper of the people and the fact that the aura of these parties was a fluke during the last elections. From India and the international community’s point of view that is a good thing.”

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