- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

Hard-line Islamic parties opposed to the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan were the big winners in Pakistan's parliamentary elections, scrambling the internal balance of power of a critical ally of the Bush administration's global war on terror.
In a stinging rebuke to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a coalition of six fundamentalist Muslim parties scored their best result ever, according to official results released yesterday.
The Islamist coalition finished third in national parliamentary elections, and it won a majority in the local assembly for the Northwest Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan.
Gen. Musharraf will remain president for at least five years and enjoys broad powers to dismiss the government and set security and foreign policy.
But the vote sets the stage for some unpredictable coalition bargaining and appears to undermine the general's carefully laid plans to ensure a civilian administration that would ratify his policies and provide much-needed international legitimacy.
U.S. officials welcomed the vote as a step toward restoring democracy after Gen. Musharraf's coup in 1999, but private election analysts said the returns were a warning to both the Pakistani and American leaders.
"Basically, this was an anti-establishment vote," said Mushahid Hussain, a journalist and former minister of information in the Pakistani government. "It was a vote against President Musharraf's policies, but it was also a vote against President Bush's policies in the year since September 11."
With final election results set to be released during the weekend, the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam, dubbed the "king's party" by its opponents, had won a slight plurality of the 272 contested seats for the National Assembly.
It was followed by the anti-government Pakistan People's Party of exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the Muslim United Action Forum.
Early returns showed the Muslim League with about 70 seats, the People's Party with 48, the forum with 47 and about a third of the seats still undecided.
Seventy additional seats, reserved for women and non-Muslim minority candidates, will be awarded on the basis of proportional representation.
Gen. Musharraf was the target of fierce criticism at home and abroad for a pre-election rewrite of the constitution and election laws and for preventing Mrs. Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister who was ousted and exiled by the general, from returning to Pakistan to campaign for their parties.
Both Mrs. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif denounced the balloting, complaining of massive vote-rigging.
Jubilant forum leaders, who managed to unite militant Muslim political movements for the election under an anti-U.S. platform, sent mixed signals yesterday about their plans.
"People wanted a change from the past corrupt rulers and the pro-U.S. policies of Gen. Musharraf," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami party and vice president of the Islamic party alliance.
But Mr. Ahmed, speaking to reporters in Nowshera, Pakistan, also said the party planned to work in consultation "with all internal forces."
"No one is a fool to put himself or his nation into trouble," he said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said initial reports from U.S. and international observers found the polling-day processes generally "free and fair" and that the vote produced a "credible representation of the full range of opinion in Pakistan."
Although acknowledging that the forum did well, he said, "We think that Pakistani people and the government have already demonstrated their strong opposition to terrorism and extremism and their desire to move their society in a moderate and stable direction," Mr. Boucher said.
He called on Gen. Musharraf to follow through on promises to return executive authority to the new prime minister after the National Assembly is established early next month.
Some Pakistani analysts said the election result might not be entirely negative for Gen. Musharraf, who has faced considerable domestic pressure since his decision to abandon his government's ties to the Afghan fundamentalist Taliban regime and forge closer ties to Washington after the September 11 attacks.
The prospect of a weak coalition government could allow the general to continue to dominate the national government, they argued, while the strong showing of the Islamic parties allows him to portray himself as a bulwark against Muslim fundamentalists in his dealings with Washington.
But Husain Haqqani, a journalist and former adviser to Mrs. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif, said the election was a "major setback for Gen. Musharraf and the army" because it did not resolve the messy clash of civilian and military power centers that has plagued Pakistan since its founding.
The uncertain result even brings into question the general's basic governing skills, said Mr. Haqqani, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"People will wonder: 'If you can't fix an election, how competent can you be at other things?'" he said.


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