Elections invariably arouse the most extraordinary of passions and expectations, especially when they come after a long hiatus, and the current euphoria in Pakistan is not unexpected. However, while elections are certainly and invariably better than the existing alternatives, their capacity to engineer epochal changes -- the kind of changes Pakistan needs if it is to emerge from its current serial crises -- is severely limited.
This is particularly the case within the South Asian political scenario -- and more so in Pakistan -- where each election simply turns into a game of musical chairs for the same tired and discredited players. The outcome may have been reason for qualified hope if a single party had swept the poll and secured the clear majority needed, not only for government formation but also for the restoration and correction of the constitutional order in the country. Instead, Pakistan has been trapped into a coalition of opportunity between two parties that have seldom seen eye to eye.
What the National and Provincial Assembly elections have done, however, is rob Gen Pervez Musharraf of whatever vestiges of legitimacy that he may still have had after over eight years of authoritarian misrule. Nevertheless, the incompleteness of the solution is more than manifest even here -- and the President can be expected to continue to play puppeteer in any situation other than one of absolute unity among the principal parties, particularly the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), with a significant spoilers' potential being exercised by the Awami National Party.
It is already evident that there is some discordance between the PPP and PML (N) with regard to what would have been thought to be at least two of the most basic consensual issues for the new coalition: The reinstatement of the dismissed judges and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the demand for Gen Musharraf's removal as President. It is already apparent, however, that Mr Asif Ali Zardari and his PPP are willing, if not eager, to do business with Gen Musharraf, and the issue of the restitution of the Supreme Court judges is directly connected with this position. If the judges are reinstated, it is a virtual certainty that they will strike down Gen Musharraf's election or sympathetically approach any other litigation seeking the President's removal. Doing business with Gen Musharraf necessarily implies keeping the 'sacked' judges out.
There has also been great celebration over the rout that the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal -- the mullahs' coalition -- has suffered, both in the National Assembly and in the Provinces. In the National Assembly, they have been brought down to just five seats from the 53 that they had 'captured' during the last election, which had been shamelessly rigged by Gen Musharraf in their favour. In the North-West Frontier Province, where they formed the last provincial government, they have secured just eight of 79 seats. In Baluchistan, where they were the largest single formation last time, they have been reduced to the insignificant margins, with just five of 46 seats. They have just two seats in the Punjab Provincial Assembly, and none whatsoever in Sindh.
There is a natural temptation to see this as a vindication of the claim that the extremists have never had much of popular support among the general population, and the last elections represented nothing but a perversion of the electoral process and popular will by the long-standing and cynical military-mullah combine. This would be correct, but it masks a more ominous reality: The sway the extremists exercise, particularly over Waziristan and the North-West Frontier Province, but also in other areas of their influence or operation, is related to the force of arms and their capacities for disruption, not their popularity or the lack thereof.
I have written repeatedly about the 'societal Stockholm syndrome', in which small but exceedingly violent groups are able to hold entire populations in thraldom through acts of extreme and demonstrative violence, and this is what happens in all areas of apparent extremist 'dominance'. This capacity for extremist violence has, in no measure, been diminished by the electoral outcome.
This is crucial to another aspect of the post-election postures of the leading parties. The electoral victors have announced a 'new approach' to the Islamist terror, declaring that they will seek a resolution to extremist violence through 'negotiations and dialogue'. There is nothing really 'new' here, and this is the politically correct avenue that most democratic parties in South Asia immediately embrace in the wake of electoral victories.
The outcome of such a course is also seldom new. Except where extremist groupings have already been beaten to the very edge of military defeat, they exploit such negotiations for political and military consolidation and invariably renew violence once the tactical advantages of a 'ceasefire' or a 'negotiation process' have been exhausted. In any event, the 'democratic' government that would soon be in place in Islamabad could bring nothing to the negotiating table that had not already been on offer in repeated negotiations between the Musharraf dictatorship and the rebels in various 'accords' in Waziristan and the NWFP.
The new Army Chief, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has promised to keep the Army "out of politics" -- but it is not clear what this means in Pakistan. Will the Army be ordered back to the barracks while the new regime in Islamabad experiments with a 'negotiated solution' to terrorism? And will it obey? Or will it continue to fight the terrorists independent of the government's efforts for dialogue? And when dialogue falters in the face of extremist violence -- as it inevitably will -- will the Army engage in operations under clear civilian command? Or will we have the Army operating -- as Nawaz Sharif claimed was the case in Kargil -- entirely outside civilian control?
In sum, the elections have not significantly altered the fundamentals of power in Pakistan. The core of the problem is the infirmity of civilian institutions and politics in the country. There is an urgent need for the new regime to establish a grip over both the administration and the Army -- but this is easier said than done. Worse, the only thing that remains more or less certain is the efficacy of the pressures that Western powers -- particularly the US - bring to bear on Pakistan. The consequences of such pressures have, historically, been far from salutary.
The elections have, moreover, brought two deeply tainted parties to the centre of the political process, and it would not be surprising if the dispensation that this election brings into force is quickly riddled with internal contradictions. It would be ironic indeed, but not inconceivable, in the midst of rising chaos, political corruption and maladministration, if the people of Pakistan, two or three years down the line, begin to think of the 'Musharraf years' with a sense of yearning and nostalgia.
K.P.S.Gill is former director-general of police, Punjab.He is also Publisher, SAIR and President, Institute for Conflict Management.This article was first published in The Pioneer