His PML-N party exceeded expectations by a significant margin, winning 66 national assembly seats, second only to the PPP’s 88.
In the PML-N (and Pakistani political and economic) heartland of Punjab, Sharif’s party took advantage of the collapse of Musharraf’s PML-Q to win a plurality of the national and provincial assembly seats. As a result, the PML-N is the first choice for the PPP’s partner in a coalition government.
And the game isn’t over yet.
Sharif announced a political amnesty for the few PML-Q politicians who were able to survive the electoral holocaust and are now anxiously looking for a new home in the PML-N.
If Sharif scoops up the PML-Q assemblymen and women, he could theoretically claim first place in the national elections and the right to form the government (not likely) and become strong enough inside Punjab to form the provincial government without having to haggle with the PPP (what he really wants).
The PML-N has gained stature among Pakistan’s educated and professional classes by its unwavering stand for restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary as the benchmark for the democratization of Pakistan’s civil society.
In his first press conference since the election (PKPolitics has the clip; it’s not all Urdu; there are a couple of English-language exchanges) Sharif cannily linked two popular issues—restoration of the judiciary and Mush Must Go.
He insisted that the judiciary be restored and the reconstituted Supreme Court rule on the constitutionality of Musharraf’s second term as president.
Since Musharraf ran while still in uniform—blatantly unconstitutional—and the deposed Supreme Court justices, under house arrest since November 3 and unfairly vilified in the government press, will be utterly uninterested in cutting Musharraf any slack, and since 70% of the electorate wants Musharraf to go anyway, the chances of Musharraf emerging from this kind of judicial review with his presidency intact is pretty much zero.
By this process, Sharif a) gets the Supreme Court to do his dirty work and b) and gets popular kudos for championing Pakistan’s independent judiciary.
And Sharif gets to wrong-foot the PPP, which is awkwardly attempting to preserve its domestic democratic credibility but at the same time live up to the deal Benazir Bhutto made with Washington, by which she would prop up Musharraf in return for a chance to return to Pakistan, contest the elections, and win the prime ministership.
Now, if the PPP had thoughts of accommodating Musharraf (and Washington), it has to take the immensely unpopular step of ignoring popular demand for restoration of the independent judiciary—with zero political cover from the PML-N.
Reportedly, Sharif also made participation in a national PPP coalition government conditional on the PPP putting Aitzaz Ahsan, the barrister who is champion of Pakistan lawyer’s movement, in the PM slot.
That’s a malicious poke in the eye and kneecapping of the political fortunes of the two men who would be king—or at least prime minister, Bhutto’s widower Asif Zadari or Makhdoom Amin Faheem, the de facto leader of the PPP.
The PPP is also a winner, of course.
It won the greatest number of seats, and convincingly demonstrated its credentials as Pakistan’s only national party, winning races in Punjab, the North West Frontier Provinces, and Balochistan, as well as dominating its home state of Sindh.
But it looks like its electoral fortunes have crested without achieving the national mandate it aspired to, let alone the 2/3 share of the vote that Asif Zardari promised or even the 50% share that the International Republican Institute’s dubious pre-election poll predicted.
Punjab looks to become Nawaz Sharif territory. And Punjab is, literally, more than half the battle.
And the PML-N has the better of the national debate, with Sharif consciously leveraging his acknowledged national stature and and pro-judiciary pro-democracy credentials to work beyond provincial identity politics and forge an issue-based political organization that resonates with Pakistan’s educated and prosperous classes nationwide.
By contrast, the PPP is too close to the United States and its unpopular security policies, saddled with a rather ridiculous quasi-religious cult of personality centered on Benazir Bhutto, associated with violent and parochial Sindh chauvinism, and led by an unpopular and ethically challenged co-chairman (Zardari) who owes his position to Bhutto’s political will, which imposed him on a party organization that really doesn’t like him.
The PPP will have its hands full dealing with Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N.
The PPP has already vowed not to deal with the pro-Musharraf parties in forming a government, which means a coalition with the PML-N is in the cards.
Future cracks in this marriage of convenience between the PPP and the PML-N is supposed to offer the only hope for Musharraf, who otherwise would be gassing his plane for exile in Turkey or the Maldives or wherever.
If the two opposition parties can’t get their act together, Musharraf gets a few months of drift and bickering followed by an open split and a hung parliament, at which time he can dissolve parliament and hold new elections, in which he hopefully will do better.
This may be a forlorn hope, since the party that will probably do better is the PML-N, which is vocally and visibly intransigent on the issue of Pervez Musharraf.
The United States now has a brief window of opportunity to do something constructive in Pakistani politics.
The deep thinkers of the State Department could look at the election results, decide that we did our honorable best by Musharraf, our loyal but terminally inept strongman, and give our backing to his peaceful departure.
The PPP would be spared the suicidal role of appearing as Musharraf’s protector, and be able to form a governing coalition with the PML-N in a subordinate position inside the government, instead of throwing rocks at it from the outside.
The U.S. has always abhorred a situation in which the PPP and the PML-N formed a coalition.
Back in December, President Bush publicly expressed doubt that Sharif could cut it as a partner of the World’s Only Superpower in the Global War on Terror.
Sharif’s problem is not that he’s anti-American.
The anti-American religious parties in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Provinces got trounced by the secular Awami National Party.
No, the Bush administration’s problem is deeper than that.
Sharif represents resistance to the Bush administration’s confrontational security policy; resistance that, post Iraq, has become mainstream not only in Pakistan but throughout the Middle East.
His primary overseas patron is Saudi Arabia.
Sharif represents an Islamic security doctrine quietly championed by Riyadh that values stability (and has come to reject America’s highly destabilizing actions in the Middle East), is comfortable with religiously conservative regimes, and doesn’t care too much about what happens to Karzai, the NATO-backed regime in Kabul, or any of the other democracies we have midwifed so bloodily in the region.
Washington fears that a PPP coalition under the influence of the PML-N (which is extremely popular: it polled above 70% in Pakistan, according to the International Republican Institute) would reflect this orientation and adopt policies popular with the Pakistani people i.e. decouple from the U.S. war on the Taleban and al Qaeda just at the time that the prospect of losing Afghanistan has started giving U.S. policymakers some serious heartburn.
No question that’s a problem.
Inside Pakistan, support for the U.S.-led War on Terror clocks in at an unimpressive 9%.
The Pakistani people hate it, the army hates it, and as a result even Musharraf couldn’t even do more than a half-hearted job of pursuing militants in Pakistan’s west.
No matter who’s in power, we’re not going to unearth some miracle race of Pakistani crusaders ready to kill their own Muslim citizens so NATO can destroy Pakistan’s natural Pashtun allies in Afghanistan.
Better to settle for a popular, stable PPP/PML-N government in Pakistan without Musharraf but with Kiyani (the new, improved army strongman) and hope that all that money we’re throwing at Pakistan buys us some grudgingly-acknowledged leverage for anti-extremist initiatives that suit both U.S. policy and the Pakistani national mood.
Of course, accepting half a loaf is not really what the Bush administration is about. Its usual response to a setback is to blame it on a deficiency of will and vigor, and double down when the facts on the ground are screaming Change Course! instead.
So we’ll see whether Washington casts its vote in favor of the PPP+Musharraf, continued division and drift in Pakistani politics and security doctrine, and eventual dominance by Nawaz Sharif and a PML-N grown more overtly anti-American.
Or maybe we can do something smart right now.
We can decide if we—and Pakistan--emerge out of this thing as winners or losers.