In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
Grande Strategy

Pakistan's 'Mother of All Elections': Domestic & International Implications

Air Commodore (Retired) Tariq Mahmud Ashraf

The long awaited elections for the National and the four Provincial Assemblies in Pakistan finally took place on 18 February 2008. Several significant aspects pertaining to these elections merit consideration:

  • Unlike most predictions that President Musharraf would find some flimsy excuse to postpone these again, the elections did take place as announced.

  • Notwithstanding the fact that 27 unnecessary human lives were lost during disturbances on the elections day2, fortunately there was no major incident of terrorist activity which had become a daily routine during the period leading up to the elections.

  • Most domestic observers as well as those participating in the elections tended to agree that these elections were held in a fairly free, transparent and fair manner. This contrasts with the tremendous hue and cry that was evident in the worldwide media about the high degree of possibility of these elections being massively rigged by the Musharraf regime to ensure acceptable results.

Part-I: Domestic Implications

Although the complete results of these elections are still awaited at the time of writing of this article, a fair assessment can be made based on the already announced results which are depicted below:

PPPP 87 78 65 7 17
PML(N) 66 101 0 0 5
PML(Q) 38 66 9 17 6
MQM 19 0 38 0 0
ANP 10 0 2 1 31
MMA 3 2 0 6 9
PML F 4 3 7 0 0
BNP(A) 1 0 0 5 0
PPP(S) 1 0 0 0 5
NPP 2 0 3 0 0
INDEPENDENT 27 35 1 10 18
TOTAL SEATS CONTESTED 268 293 130 51 96

Table-1: Pakistan Election 2008 Results3

Legend: PPPP Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians

PML(N) Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)

PML(Q) Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam)

MQM Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz

ANP Awami National Party

PML(F) Pakistan Muslim League (Functional)

BNP(A) Baluchistan National Party (Awami)

PPP(S) Pakistan Peoples Party (Sherpao)

NPP National Peoples Party

      NA National Assembly

      PP Provincial Assembly (Punjab)

      PS Provincial Assembly (Sindh)

      PB Provincial Assembly (Baluchistan)

      PF Provincial Assembly (North West Frontier Province)

The salient aspects emerging from the available results are discussed in the subsequent text.

Complete Rout of the Religious Political Alliance

In the immediate aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan, the religious political parties in Pakistan's western provinces of NWFP and Baluchistan were able to exploit the emerging undercurrents of anti-Americanism to unite under one banner and sweep the elections in both of these provinces. This political alliance, known as Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) was not only able to form government in these two provinces but also had a substantial presence in the Federal Legislature. The 2002 elections were the 'first ever time in Pakistan's history that any religious party was able to secure enough seats to form their own governments in 2 of 4 Pakistani provinces'4 but the results of the 2008 elections have corrected this phenomenon. Not only does the MMA stand divided as an alliance but it has also lost almost all the ground that it had gained in 2002 with the more secular political players regaining their previous footholds.

It must be considered, however, that this sharp reversal is not primarily because of any emerging goodwill for the US or the West but has been caused by the failures and inadequacies of the religious political parties in ensuring good governance and also because of their visible alliance with Musharraf. On the positive side, the emergence of the secular political leaders on the scene in NWFP and Baluchistan does mean that the enormous free hand that was earlier available to the religious extremists does not exist any more. This could lead to the rising terrorist threat from these entities being arrested and could also serve to inhibit the support that as being provided by these to the Taleban and Al Qaeda militants operating across the Durand Line in Afghanistan.

The revival of the political fortunes of the secular political parties also strengthens the belief in the Pakistani nation being a secular and liberal group of people who neither practice religious extremism nor condone it. Significantly, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, one of the key leaders of the MMA could not even win the elections from his home constituency of Dera Ismail Khan although he did win from another constituency in Bannu.

Defeat of Musharraf's Political Allies

Ever since the Supreme Court saga started, Musharraf's political stature has steadily gone downhill. The matters worsened significantly after his imposition of an unwarranted and unjustified state of Emergency on 03 November 2007, his sacking of the entire Supreme Court and Benazir Bhutto's tragic assassination on 27 December 2007. The latest election has indicated how strongly the Pakistani populace views these actions of Musharraf and his political cronies in the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam) commonly referred to as PML-Q.

Not only did the PML-Q fair very poorly in these elections but also several of its key leaders including the President of the PML-Q could not get re-elected. The list of these Musharraf loyalists who faced unprecedented and unexpected electoral defeats includes all the members of the previous Cabinet except for two. This clearly indicates that the common voter did not consider the previous political leadership acceptable.

The defeat of virtually the entire PML-Q leadership goes to prove the high level of displeasure of the Pakistani masses not against this group of opportunist politicians but also indicates how fed up the Pakistani voters are with Musharraf himself. The results indicate that the masses have voted for any one who stands against Musharraf and his political cronies.

The 'Provincial' Element in Pakistan's Politics

The 2008 elections have once again demonstrated the vital role that provincialism plays in Pakistani politics: the PPP, being a Sindhi party, has swept that province, the PML-N which is based in the Punjab has swept Pakistan's most populous province and the ANP has achieved a strong presence in the NWFP Legislature.

Most of the political parties have secured seats only in one province while a few have managed to get their candidates elected in two provinces. Interestingly, it is only the PPP and the PML-Q which have emerged as national political parties in the sense that both of these have gained representation in the legislatures of all four provinces. Of the other parties, MMA and ANP have gotten their candidates elected in three provinces each while PML-N candidates have won in only two provinces.

The conviction and belief of the common Pakistanis in the unity of the Federation is borne out by the following facts:

  • Despite the fact that the PPP is a Sindh-based political party, it has managed to show a very strong presence in the Punjab. This inclination of the Punjabi voters to elect a large number of PPP candidates from their province speaks of their belief in the Federation.

  • The PML-Q, despite its losses everywhere else, has shown a strong presence in the troubled province of Baluchistan. While the personality focused political environment of this province has contributed a lot to the strong showing of the PML-Q in Baluchistan, the possibility of the Baluch masses being satisfied at the extra attention that was given to the developmental activities in their province during the Musharraf era, must also be considered since several major projects such as the Gwadar deep sea port, the Mirani Dam and the Coastal Highway have been initiated or completed in Baluchistan during the past few years.

The results in Baluchistan should also put to rest all the fears of this province nearing a situation of civil war / secession since the Baluchi people have clearly indicated their preference for the Federation by casting their votes in favour of a mainline political party which has its roots in Punjab.

Impact of Benazir's Assassination

The tragic death of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi on 27 December 2008 was an event of immense significance for Pakistan's political milieu. The widespread disturbances that broke out throughout Sindh in the immediate aftermath of this incident virtually brought the entire country to a stand still with immense loss of life and property. Although some apprehensions remain regarding Asif Ali Zardari's capability to efficiently manage affairs of the Bhutto political dynasty, the people of Sindh, specifically rural Sindh, have remained firm in their support for the Pakistan People's Party and there is no doubt that the party has gained a lot of benefit because of the sympathy vote. In fact, the impact of this sympathy vote has not just been confined to Sindh but has also significantly influenced the electoral results in Punjab, NWFP and Baluchistan.

Split Mandates and Coalitions

None of the political parties has been able to garner enough seats to form a government on its own either at the centre or in the provinces. The only exception is the PPP which has managed to achieve a simple majority in Sindh and can form a government there without seeking the assistance of any other political party. This phenomenon of split mandates has different implications at the Federal and the Provincial levels:

  • At the Federal level, like-minded political parties will have to come together to establish a government. Although the next Prime Minister would undoubtedly be from the PPP, it is reasonable to expect that the PPP, in coming to an understanding with other political parties, would have to make some accommodations. For instance, if the PPP wants to court the PML-N, it might have to consider the latter's resolve to restore the Supreme Court to the shape and form that it was in before Musharraf declared the Emergency and sacked all the Judges. Similar give-and-take would also be required in dealing with the other political entities such as the ANP which is insisting on a change in the name of NWFP to one that reflects the identity and culture of its natives.

  • At the Provincial level, the only significant impact might occur in Sindh where the PPP is capable of forming its own government. This might sideline the other smaller parties like the MQM which is bound to be resented. Another area of contention that could emerge as a potential problem is the relationship between the Provincial government and the City governments of Karachi and Hyderabad which are dominated by the MQM.

Future of President Musharraf

Having managed to get himself re-elected by the outgoing legislature, Musharraf is treading on thin ice when it comes to functioning with an overtly hostile Federal government in Islamabad. Not only does he need to block attempts of the political leadership to revive the sacked Judges of the Supreme Court but he also needs to stop them from restoring the Constitution.

The only power that Musharraf possesses is his power to dissolve the elected legislatures under Section 58 (2b) of the Constitution of Pakistan. This extreme step, however, is liable to put the entire country into a turmoil from which it might be difficult to recover.

Part-II: International Implications

Pakistan's Continued Involvement in the Global War on Terrorism

While the military dominated Musharraf regime could decide to side with the US against the Taleban because of its dictatorial make-up, a political dispensation might find it difficult to do the same. While there is no doubt that the new government would want to eradicate militancy and religious extremism, it does not seem probable that it would embark on an open conflict against the Pashtun dominated Taleban. This would be a blow to the US and NATO military operations against the Taleban and Al Qaeda elements operating inside Afghanistan.

The emergence of a liberal and secular government in the NWFP, however, is a positive sign since this government would undoubtedly work towards eradicating the radical and militant Islamic elements from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where these have been operating with impunity for over a decade. Any such move by the NWFP Provincial government is bound to restrict the freedom with which the Taleban and Al Qaeda elements cross over from Afghanistan to Pakistan and vice versa. By denying a resting and recuperating place to these elements and depriving them of a safe haven, Pakistan could substantially further the cause of the US and NATO military forces deployed inside Afghanistan. A US academic has aptly summed up the dilemma confronting President Bush and his lieutenants thus:

'The results of the elections held in Pakistan on October 10 have cast a shadow over the Bush administration's foreign policy. That policy has been driven by contradictory impulses -- curbing Islamic extremism, promoting democracy, beating the drums of war, and supporting dictatorial regimes friendly to the United States. The Pakistani electorate has pointed out the inconsistencies'.5

While it is premature to predict the policy which the future Pakistani government would implement in regard to support for the US-led Global War on Terrorism, statements of the leaders of one of the winning political parties indicate that his party would favour tackling the Islamic militants in the FATA region not through military force but through negotiations.

The results could have far-reaching implications for the U.S.-led war on terror, especially Pakistani military operations against al-Qaida and Taliban-style militants in border areas of the northwest. Sharif and others have called for dialogue with the extremists and have criticized military operations in the area because of their impact on civilians. Afrasiab Khattak, a leading opposition politician from the northwest, said his Party did not believe "that a military solution will work," adding his group "will never support American forces coming here and operating."6

Relations with India

Democratic governments in Pakistan have generally been more amenable to improving relations with India than military dictatorships. The establishment of a political government in Islamabad, therefore, could be expected to revive the India - Pakistan Composite Dialogue which has been dormant for quite some time now.

Life without Musharraf

Although the West in general and the US in particular have been banking on Musharraf support in the Global War on Terrorism, they would now need to open up and establish dialogue channels with the political leadership that assumes control of the affairs of state in Islamabad.

Since indications are that the new regime in Islamabad would prefer to negotiate rather than take on the Islamic militants by force, the US and NATO Coalition forces in Afghanistan need to structure this eventuality into their battle plans. Although the final option for the US and NATO to force Musharraf to intervene once again does exist, it will not be the advisable option under the circumstances.

One possible option for the US and NATO Forces operating in Afghanistan could be to implement a border sealing operation jointly in co-ordination with the Pakistan security forces. By doing this, the extremist militants inside FATA could be squeezed from both sides and their flexibility of operation reduced significantly without resorting to any flagrant use of force. This option, however, does entail the danger of the Islamic militants or their sympathizers embarking on yet another terrorism campaign inside Pakistan which could worsen the situation even more by destabilizing Pakistan's newly elected political government.

Another option could be for the US to embark on a crash programme aimed at suitably equipping and training Pakistan's Frontier Corps7 - the paramilitary organ which undertakes security operations within the FATA. By strengthening this force, the US and NATO could discourage and deter the Islamic militants operating from hideouts within Pakistan's tribal belt. This project has been floating around for quite some time now but it needs to be implemented urgently.


It took more than eight years of military rule for Pakistan's current transition to democracy through the ninth general elections in the country's history. The results of these elections which have been termed as fair, free and transparent by most analysts have been a verdict against President Musharraf, his political cronies and their policies.

While the newly elected political leaders in Pakistan need to tackle with the domestic implications arising out of these elections, the West in General and the US / NATO in particular need to take these results into account while waging the global War of Terrorism against the Taleban and the Al Qaeda inside battled Afghanistan.

[1] The author retired from the Pakistan Air Force after a career spanning over 3 decades. He holds a Masters in Defence and Strategic Studies and is currently pursuing another in International Policy and Diplomacy. A regular writer on Strategic / Defence / Nuclear / Aerospace issues focusing on South Asia, he has authored one book and over 70 articles and papers which have been published in journals of repute in Pakistan, USA, India and Hong Kong. Comments on his articles are welcome and can be addressed to him at

2 News bulletin on GEO TV during its marathon election transmission.

3 Downloaded from 2008/ at 1330 GMT on 19 February 2008.

4 Adnan Gill, 'Pakistani Elections: New Slogans, Same Players - Same Games', available on the internet at http://www.asiantri ?q=node/9663

5 Mr. Cole is professor of Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan and author of Sacred Space and Holy War (I.B. Tauris, 2002). His web site is This extract is taken from his article ' Why Those Election Results in Pakistan Are Frightening' which is available on the internet at

7 Matthew Pennington, Associated Press Writer, 'Pakistan's ruling party concedes defeat'. Available on the internet at

8 The Frontier Corps is a 80,000 strong paramilitary force entrusted with the security of Pakistan's western borders with Afghanistan and Iran. A legacy of the British colonial era, this force consists of soldiers from the local tribes with all the officers being from the regular Pakistan Army. Generally, the frontier Corps troops are poorly trained, inadequately equipped and low paid as compared to the regular Army but ever since the commencement of Operation Enduring Freedom, these formations have been thrust into the forefront of the campaign against the Islamic militant extremists operating in Pakistan's tribal areas along its border with Afghanistan۔

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