The People of Pakistan Have Spoken

Military governments in Pakistan have far too frequently been supported for "strategic" reasons, often at the expense of democratic rule. This policy must change.

Working in a newsroom in Pakistan over the last few months, I have experienced many tense moments. As journalists we have covered everything from jubilant election rallies to bomb blasts and suicide bombings. But past events have not prompted me and my colleagues to feel such impending doom as when we arrived in the newsroom on Feb. 18 to start covering one of Pakistan's most crucial parliamentary elections.

We were bracing ourselves for the worst. Over the last few months, Pakistan has experienced an upsurge in violence, with almost daily attacks leading up to the elections. None of us could have predicted the actual outcome: a remarkably free and fair election with only sporadic incidents of violence.

The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, one of Pakistan's most popular and charismatic leaders, undoubtedly charged the atmosphere in these elections. Pakistan's grief over Bhutto's death has been overwhelming. Although her two brief terms in office were mired in allegations of corruption and mismanagement, death transformed her into a martyr for her supporters. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) did very well in Sindh, her home province, as expected. But in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, it was another opposition party—that of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif—that made major gains.

The most fascinating results came from Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (N.W.F.P.), which borders Afghanistan and is often derided in Western media as Pakistan's "wild west" and the birthplace of the Taliban. Here, the secular Awami National Party decisively defeated the incumbent Islamic political coalition, marking a positive first step for the rejuvenation of Pashtun civil society and improvement of strained Pakistani-Afghan relations.

The biggest loser in the election was the party allied to President Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistan Muslim League (P.M.L.-Q). Many of its leaders lost their seats in their home constituencies, marking a major blow to the president's rule and his attempts for continued legitimacy.

The biggest winner is Pakistani democracy. Pakistan's 61-year history has seen a long struggle between military and civilian leaders. The elections proved that even in the wake of intimidation and fear of violence, Pakistanis continue to believe in the discourse of democracy.

The road ahead for democracy in Pakistan is a long and arduous one. Elections, after all, are just one component of a functioning democracy and must be complemented by effective and fair institutions, such as an independent judiciary and media, which have been conspicuously absent in Pakistan as of late. At present, Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury and most of the senior judiciary opposed to Musharraf's continued rule remain under house arrest.

There are lessons to be learned from the Feb. 18 elections by the international community, particularly the United States. Military governments in Pakistan have far too frequently been supported for "strategic" reasons, often at the expense of democratic rule. This policy must change if there is to be an effective global effort to combat extremism and repudiate those who propagate an impending clash of civilizations.

Over the last few months, Pakistan has lurched from one crisis to another and in the process, has taken up far too much headline space in the world's newspapers. I have been dismayed to read crudely written articles in American media calling for a United States invasion of Pakistan to "de-nuke" it in case it fragments. I have never been committed to the politics of nationalism but I believe the break-up of Pakistan is not in the interest of people living here or of our region.

This was a truly historic election for Pakistan. However, the larger question of whether the Pakistani military, which has become so economically and politically powerful over the last 61 years, will return to its barracks remains unanswered. There is, however, a growing momentum within the country calling for an end to the pattern that has been repeated throughout our past.

The Pakistani people have rejected the forces of dictatorship and extremism by exercising their right to vote in the most difficult of circumstances. We hope the rest of the world will hear our voices and support our struggle.

Rehan Rafay Jamil is a Pakistani journalist and freelance writer living in Karachi. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.