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Ruling Party Defeat in Pakistan May Intensify Pressure on Musharraf

February 19, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf conceded defeat Tuesday after his party lost to the opposition Pakistan People's Party in Monday's parliamentary elections. Two Pakistan experts consider what the election may mean for both Pakistan and the United States.
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JIM LEHRER: Next, the Pakistani elections. Independent Television News correspondent Kylie Morris reports from Islamabad.

KYLIE MORRIS, ITV News Correspondent: Music and even flowers for the candidates who seat by seat has undone the absolute power of President Pervez Musharraf. Here in Rawalpindi, now a Sharif man has unseated a former Musharraf minister and finds his victory easy to explain.

Why do you think your party has done so well?

PAKISTANI POLITICIAN: Because of President Musharraf policies, internal and external.

KYLIE MORRIS: So it’s all about President Musharraf? It’s all about what he’s done?

PAKISTANI POLITICIAN: Yes, yes.

KYLIE MORRIS: Whether it was the economy or the insurgency, the killing of Benazir Bhutto, or the state of emergency, all through the night President Musharraf hemorrhaged support. It only took hours for the opposition celebration to begin.

Last week, the president called these the mother of all elections. But he couldn’t have known at the time they would herald his rejection.

In the cold, hard light of the new day, there was new details. The religious parties in the country’s badlands had also done badly, replaced by secular nationalists. But now the dancing’s done and the hard work begins.

(inaudible) follow the convoy today, as negotiators shuttled between one another’s houses to start the horse trading.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is in a stronger position than anyone forecast, much to the delight of his supporters. Today he made one thing clear: He wants rid of the president, the general, who eight years ago deposed him to seize power.

NAWAZ SHARIF, Former Prime Minister of Pakistan (through translator): Musharraf doesn’t understand this decision. He’s closed his eyes. He said before that he would go when the people want him to do so. Now the people have given their verdict.

KYLIE MORRIS: Nawaz Sharif’s enmity towards the president means he’s most likely to cut a deal with another former enemy, Asif Ali Zardari. Sharif once put him in jail and his wife, Benazir Bhutto, tried to do the same to Sharif. But today, all those bad times were forgotten.

ASIF ALI ZARDARI, Leader, Pakistan People’s Party (through translator): We’re trying our level best to make a government of national consensus. And in this effort, we will try to include all political forces.

KYLIE MORRIS: President Musharraf was short of public engagements today, except for this one, meeting a delegation of high-ranking American senators who’d come to the capital to observe the elections firsthand.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: Our security rests in the vast majority of moderate Pakistanis having control of their country and their government, having a political outlet through a democratic process. That is the most significant, in this senator’s view, significant way in which we can ensure that we succeed in the fight against radicalism and terror.

KYLIE MORRIS: Certainly for Pakistan it’s all about the future and putting aside the past. Whether President Musharraf has put side, as well, we’ll have to wait and see.

Vote reflects widespread discontent

Steve Coll
New America Foundation
General Musharraf proved to be, over the long run, a poor politician. He wasn't able to galvanize the coalition he began with, hold on to it, broaden it.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on what the election results will mean for Pakistan and for the United States and its interests in the region, we turn to Javed Burki, a former senior World Bank official who was Pakistan's finance minister in the 1990s. He's written extensively about Pakistan and just returned from a six-week trip there. Raised in Islamabad, he's now an American citizen.

And Steve Coll, a New Yorker magazine staff writer and president of the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, he's a former Washington Post correspondent in South Asia and continues to report from Pakistan frequently.

And welcome to you both.

Javed Burki, how big a repudiation is this of President Musharraf himself? And what do you think most explains it?

SHAHID JAVED BURKI, Former Pakistani Finance Minister: I think it's very big. And what explains it is it was incredible that Musharraf, having cultivated the forces of moderation, he abandoned them all one by one.

Initially, he had decided that, in order to fight extremism, to go after Islamic extremism, he needed the judiciary, he needed the press, he needed the civil society. He needed all these people, who were very encouraged by the kind of thing that he was doing.

And I'm amazed that one by one he abandoned them all and he let them go. And now he's faced with a situation that he'll have to work with them. He's now in a completely new ballgame.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Coll, do you agree with that analysis? And how much of this do you think the vote was also a repudiation of the United States and its relationship with Musharraf?

STEVE COLL, New Yorker Magazine: I do agree with that analysis. I think that General Musharraf proved to be, over the long run, a poor politician. He wasn't able to galvanize the coalition he began with, hold on to it, broaden it.

And so, particularly last year, his popularity plummeted so far that he simply couldn't recover. And he didn't seem to know how as a politician to go about recovering.

I do think, also, that the results repudiate to an extent U.S. policy in Pakistan, particularly the unquestioning support that the United States provided to President Musharraf throughout the time of his dictatorship and even last year when he was weakening.

And probably the best evidence of that is the strong showing by Nawaz Sharif, who was the most defiant of President Musharraf throughout last year and running into the election, and who was equally defiant of the United States, unwilling to compromise in ways that former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto often was.

Musharraf's flexibility

Shahid Javed Burki
Former Finance Minister, Pakistan
I've always been amazed by [Musharraf's] flexibility. After all, he did a u-turn when the U.S. asked him, "Now you have to abandon Taliban and you have to come to our side."

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Burki, what happens to President Musharraf now? Do you think he should step down, as Nawaz Sharif was clearly suggesting there?

SHAHID JAVED BURKI: I don't think he should step down, but he must learn the new game, which is, rather than one man's word being carried all the time, one man both ruling and whatever he said had to be obeyed, now he has to work with a number of different people.

And once he begins to do that, then I think it will be useful for Musharraf to stay on and have a new system evolve in which there is a considerable amount of sharing of power.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you know him personally. Do you think he's capable of this new style of governing?

SHAHID JAVED BURKI: I've always been amazed by his flexibility. After all, he did a u-turn when the U.S. asked him, "Now you have to abandon Taliban and you have to come to our side," and he did that.

And he will surprise us all by being able to work with people like Nawaz Sharif, with whom he's had a bit of a vendetta, and it works in both ways. And he may be able to do it.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Coll, what do you think about Musharraf's future, what do you think it should be?

STEVE COLL: Well, I'm less sanguine about his ability to recover and play a productive role. I think the big question now is whether he is a greater source of instability as Pakistan completes this democratic transition or a greater source of stability.

And to some extent, it will be up to him and to the political leaders elected by the people of Pakistan to sort that question out through bargaining over the next couple of weeks.

If President Musharraf finds a way to accommodate a new civilian government and to persuade them that he has a constructive role to play, notwithstanding their skepticism about the way he used the state of emergency and a packed hand-picked Supreme Court to legitimize himself, then perhaps that will be a sign that he can, in fact, bargain and work productively with this new leadership.

By all accounts, the evidence suggests he did allow a broadly fair and free election to go forward. That's certainly to his credit.

The results, while marred in some regions by violence and irregularities, are consistent in general terms with the polling that preceded the vote. And a lot of people didn't think that was going to happen, so that's a fairly strong place for him to begin.

But I'm not certain that he can recover from the repudiation that this vote represents; it really is almost total.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, Mr. Burki, that these two opposition parties, the one of Benazir Bhutto's widower and the one of Nawaz Sharif, are going to be able to govern -- and I'm conscious you were part of one of those governments -- but govern any more effectively, in terms of the economy, but also corruption, than they either did in the past?

SHAHID JAVED BURKI: I'm not so sure. Steve knows the 1990s. He has written about that period. And I would be a little nervous at letting these two parties go into the new system without any kind of checks and balances.

And that's where Musharraf could be a useful player. He will have to change the game that he has been playing. He'll have to work with people. But I think we've had those experiences when two political parties alternated and both of them did very poorly.

A gradual move toward stability

Steve Coll
New America Foundation
It does seem, overall, as if Pakistan is moving gradually from a political crisis toward political stability.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve, what do you think are going to be the implications of this new coalition, because they are trying to form a coalition now, on what the U.S. most cares about, which is the fight against Islamic extremism?

STEVE COLL: Well, I think there are two important aspects. One is the national aspect. And it does seem, overall, as if Pakistan is moving gradually from a political crisis toward political stability. But as we've been talking about, there are still uncertainties about this constitutional bargain that now is set up for negotiation.

If that stability continues to gel, then the United States will be able to return its policies towards broad support for constitutional democracy and the effort to support counterinsurgency against the Taliban.

I think there's a second aspect that's at least equally important, and that was mentioned in the taped report, which is that the religious parties have lost power along the border in Afghanistan where they have controlled provincial governments since 2002.

And they've been replaced by secular Pashtun nationalist parties who are hostile to the Taliban and who, at a minimum, will not allow the institutions of these provincial governments to be used by collaborators of the Taliban.

And that certainly will extend and aid the U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in that part of the country.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Burki, how do you think -- well, first of all, do you agree with that, that the loss of the Islamic parties out in the Northwest Frontier province is significant?

SHAHID JAVED BURKI: I think it's very significant. I think they had done well under a special set of circumstances. They were assisted by Musharraf. They were just assisted by some of the agencies who were working for Musharraf.

And this time, they didn't get any assistance, and so Pakistan has gone back to where it always was, which is just a small amount of support for Islamic parties.

U.S. adjustment to new reality

Shahid Javed Burki
Former Finance Minister, Pakistan
The name of the game is going to be how to deal with change. Musharraf will have to deal with change, and the Americans will have to begin to deal with change.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me finally ask you both, beginning with you, Mr. Burki, how do you think now the United States needs to adjust to this new reality? How does it have to recalibrate how it deals with Pakistan?

SHAHID JAVED BURKI: You know, when you ask me this question, I'm reminded of what I was told in Islamabad, that Musharraf and President Bush would talk, and Musharraf would keep no notes, and he would just transmit to his colleagues in Islamabad that, "This is what I have agreed to do with President Bush."

Now, you cannot run a government, you cannot run a government which is as complicated as Pakistan, dealing with a complicated situation, on a kind of a one-to-one, person-to-person relationship. It will have to be an institution-to-institution relationship.

So the United States will also have to learn a great deal. The name of the game is going to be how to deal with change. Musharraf will have to deal with change, and the Americans will have to begin to deal with change. And the critical parties that are involved will also have to change.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve, very brief final word from you on that?

STEVE COLL: I think American interests lie in the promotion of a stable Pakistani democracy, not in the building of a relationship with any individual. And this election gives the United States an opportunity to restart its commitment to Pakistani democracy and to change the policies that have relied heavily on personalities in the past.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Coll of the New Yorker and Javed Burki, thank you both.

SHAHID JAVED BURKI: Thank you.

STEVE COLL: Pleasure.