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Voters Flock to Pakistan Opposition Parties

By Council On Foreign Relations

Unofficial results from Pakistan's parliamentary elections indicate opposition parties may win a majority of seats, further weakening President Pervez Musharraf's hold on power. The Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, appear to be leading the polls. So far neither party shows a clear majority. Amid violence and allegations of biased election officials, voter turnout was estimated (BBC) to be less than 40 percent. The results could have huge implications for stepped-up U.S. efforts to clamp down on terrorist bases believed to be growing in Pakistani frontier areas in the west and north.

An editorial in Pakistan-based newspaper The News says "the possibility of an unwieldy situation emerging in the aftermath of the February 18 polls remains high." The chief question is whether the lead contenders will accept the election results, and if those results will lead to a distribution of parliament seats able to produce a viable, stable future government. In the event the parties of the two former prime ministers emerge with a clear two-thirds majority in the parliament, they could decide to form a coalition and take a number of steps against the president. Some political experts say they could impeach Musharraf (AP), or if they fall short of votes, they could reinstate the judges sacked by Musharraf last year during the state of emergency and the judges could then declare Musharraf's October election invalid.

Musharraf's popularity, which had declined since the judicial crisis in March 2007, plunged further last December after opposition party leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. A survey conducted by the U.S.-based organization Terror Free Tomorrow in January 2008 showed 58 percent of Pakistanis blame Musharraf (PDF), government-allied politicians, and government agencies for Bhutto's death.

Many had expressed hope that the elections would bring political stability to a country torn by militancy, emergency rule, and political upheaval. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in testimony (PDF) to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 13, said: "We are encouraging formation of a moderate center to complete the transition to democracy and underwrite the fight against violent extremism." But the United States which has had a tumultuous relationship with Pakistan, as this new timeline explains, continues to score low in Pakistani public approval ratings. The IRI poll showed only 9 percent of Pakistanis said their country should cooperate with Washington in its war on terror.

Any new government that comes into power might be wary of being seen as a close U.S. ally. This could complicate U.S. efforts to step up operations against Pakistan-based militants. A report in the Washington Post, citing U.S. officials, says U.S. forces have been leading unilateral strikes within Pakistan's borders without permission from Pakistani authorities. The report says such strikes could become more frequent this year, particularly if a power vacuum results from the elections. In January, amid speculation regarding U.S. action in Pakistan's tribal areas, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates stressed Pakistani sovereignty and added: "[W]e would not do anything without their approval."

Teresita C. Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the United States has relied too much on Musharraf and warns that all the scenarios in which Musharraf remains president will involve some form of continued instability (PDF). CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey looks at the choices open to Washington, including strengthening Pakistani institutions, in this Policy Options Paper. "Whatever happens in the parliamentary elections, there will be further instability," writes Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times. Rachman says the end of Musharraf's rule might be a good thing, but adds that addressing Pakistan's deepest problems "would require long-term social, educational and economic reforms."

Copyright 2008, Council on Foreign Relations

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