HONG KONG: Pakistan's way forward
The elections to be held on Feb. 18 are Pakistan's only way forward. But whether they solve much requires a willingness on the part of Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and leader of the Muslim League, and a Pakistan Peoples Party without Benazir Bhutto, as well as President Pervez Musharraf, to abide by their spirit and accept their result.
Whatever Musharraf's past merits - including successful economic policies - he is now a central part of the problem. His opportunism and treatment of judges alienated much of a prospering middle class. Even before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, his maneuvering to stay in power undermined his reputation, so that allegations of intended election fixing are hard to ignore. And although the shock of Bhutto's death may have sobered the other players, mutual suspicions go deep.
Neither of the contenders for power from the two main party have unsullied reputations for democracy or clean government. Sharif rose to prominence under General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who overthrew and then executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir's father. Benazir's two periods in office as prime minister were undistinguished and no less corrupt than those of Nawaz Sharif. In general, military rule has been less corrupt.
Both parties, but the Pakistan Peoples Party in particular, rely on a mix of feudal relationships and regional sentiment for their voting bases - the Bhuttos in Sindh, Nawaz Sharif in Punjab. As elsewhere in South Asia, the family name means a lot, as reflected in the instant elevation of Benazir's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and son Bilawal to party leadership despite the reputation of one and the youth of the other.
The Bhuttos have maintained their hold on the PPP despite both past family feuds and a degree of Westernization that wins friends in Washington and among secular Pakistanis, but makes them vulnerable to attacks on their Muslim credentials.
Political violence, however, is not the exclusive preserve of Al Qaeda and its allies. The tradition probably includes Zia, who died in a plane crash, and Benazir's two brothers, one of whom was gunned down by police while she was prime minister in an unsolved mystery in which Zardari was implicated.
But despite the feudalism of a still predominantly rural society and abysmal literacy levels among women, political awareness runs high and with it, a desire to vote. So the country should now get an elected prime minister even if the durability of the democratic regime is in doubt.
The main parties will have to put aside years of mutual suspicion. Any elected government will have to keep on the side of the military, which sees itself as the guardian against separatist pressures, and as the protector of the country's national interests regarding Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Musharraf has had to bend before U.S. pressures but it is an illusion to imagine that a democratic government could enforce Islamabad's writ in the Pushtu-speaking, Taliban-friendly tribal areas any more than Musharraf's army has done - or any more than the British could do 100 years ago. (As Churchill wrote of a 1898 campaign in which he participated and cost the British 287 lives: "The whole expedition was a mistake because its success depended on the tribesmen giving in when their country was invaded. This they have not done. . . . We have no real means - except prolonged occupation - of making them give in.")
Democratic politics will make both regional and religious issues assume great importance. If a coalition is needed, the more extreme Islamist parties may punch above the 10-to-15 percent of the vote they seem likely to attract. But democratic governments have generally been less Islamist than the military rule under Zia or the pre-9/11 Musharraf.
Punjab and Sindh have most of the votes - these are not the areas where extremists easily thrive. Elections may provide targets for suicide bombers but also provide an opportunity for the more extreme Islamists to push their case without resorting to violence. Furthermore, Pakistan still has an open and diverse civil society.
Messy and occasionally bloody politics will continue. But the country will not fall apart; it will not be taken over by militants; it will not sell nuclear weapons, and it will not start a war with India. Whoever rules, its relationship with the U.S. will remain ambiguous. While Pakistan and the U.S. share many interests, their priorities are too different, and religious prejudices are common to both.