October Elections in Pakistan


In October 2002, Pakistan had its first national and provincial elections under the military order established by General Pervez Musharraf after his October 1999 coup. With sweeping changes to the constitution, new election laws, and after declaring himself President for at least another five years, and U.S. support for his new role as an ally in the war against terrorism, General Musharraf barred the major opposition party leaders and former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto from participating, and created a new political party supportive of his rule. Pakistan’s voters have thrown this grand strategy into a spin.  

Zia Mian is a scholar and activist on South Asian and disarmament issues at the Centre for Science and Global Security at Princeton University in New Jersey and teaches there in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He was interviewed about the implications of the elections in Pakistan.


Who won the October 2002 elections in Pakistan?

General Musharraf thinks he did.

There are a couple of factors that make that more than just a funny answer.  First, after these elections Musharraf is able to legitimize his government, which is actually a government that took power after a military coup in October 1999  He has legitimized the result of that coup, and the referendum that followed in April 2002, and has gotten away with it.  Second, he has created a new political formation in Pakistan, a structure that is loyal to him and dependent on the military, with less autonomy and less capacity to represent any interests other than the military.

You’re referring to the Pakistan-Muslim League-Quaid e-Azam.

The party of Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf ousted in his 1999 coup, was the Pakistan Muslim League (PML).  The party of Benazir Bhutto, who is in exile facing corruption charges, is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).  What Musharraf did was create a new party, the Pakistan-Muslim League-Quaid e-Azam (PML-Q) by peeling away people from these parties through inducements, and intimidation.

How much coercion and intimidation are we talking about?

There are reports of unprecedented arm-twisting by the military and the intelligence agencies like Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI.  These intelligence agencies are not above bribery and blackmail.  They know the skeletons that are in the closets of some of these politicians, and offered to bury them. They also probably offered to create new skeletons. 

General Musharraf’s principal secretary went from Islamabad, the capital, to Lahore in the Punjab (Pakistan’s most populous and powerful province) to line the politicians up, to make sure Musharraf won in the Punjab. Newsline, Pakistan’s leading independent news magazine, reported in September that “heavy arm-twisting by the ISI, as well as the administration… forced many to switch their loyalties. Never before had the spy agency, despite its notoriety, been used so rampantly for political manipulation.”

By encouraging some and intimidating other candidates, preventing certain candidates from even running, you don’t have to stuff ballot boxes.

And this strategy worked?

The strategy was to make it so that the PPP and PML could not win a majority of parliament either singly or in coalition with one another.  Both of these parties would be likely to challenge General Musharraf’s authority if they gained power. In the event, the Pakistan People’s Party emerged (with 62 seats) as the second party after the PML-Q (with 76), and the PML was decimated, with 16 seats out of 272 total contested seats in Parliament. The Islamists, on the other hand, won a total of 53 seats of the 272. 

[There are additional seats reserved for women and religious minorities which are allocated to each party in proportion to its share of the contested seats – after these are included PML-Q has 118 seats, PPP has 81 seats, MMA has 60 and PML has 19 seats.  The total number is seats in parliament – after General Musharraf increased them - is now 342.]  

Because the PPP and PML were stopped from running in all these different ways, those who would have voted for these more centrist (and more anti-Musharraf) parties, either abstained or ended up voting for the Islamists.  In many seats, the Islamists would otherwise be the third choice of the electorate.  By removing the first and second choices, Musharraf cleared the way for them.

Are there any parallels in Pakistan’s history for a situation like this?

After Pakistan’s creation in 1947, there were a series of very short-lived governments with forgotten leaders, people like Nizamuddin and Bogra — they ruled for 2-3 years at a time.  They had no independent political base and they got to be leaders because of ‘court politics’.  This was the situation until the military coup of 1958 that brought Ayub Khan to power, and 10 years of dictatorship. 

If you look at Ayub Khan’s speech when he took power it is almost the same as Musharraf’s when he staged his coup.  The same arguments, the same claim that he would stay in power only as long as it takes. In Ayub’s case it took ten years and he had to be thrown out. General Musharraf has already had three years and has given himself another five – for now – and may decide he needs who knows how much more.

Ayub was toppled by massive popular mobilizations in 1968-1969.  In the elections that followed, in 1970, (the first. and perhaps so far only. truly free and fair elections in Pakistan’s history) what was interesting was the size, scale, and character of choices made by the Pakistani people.  In that 10 years of dictatorship there was the creation of new identities, challenging the center.  In East Pakistan, that a year later became Bangladesh, you had the emergence of the Awami League. These were Bengali nationalists who won a majority of seats and so won the elections.  This was a particular identity though, and the Awami League did poorly in West Pakistan.  That’s because Pakistan was a centralized country with its center in West Pakistan, in the Punjab, that treated East Pakistan as a colony.

In West Pakistan there was also a reaction to the centralization of power.  It wasn’t an ethnic mobilization but a populist response to a dictatorship that over 10 years famously had created the conditions where 22 families owned 70-80% of the industrial and financial wealth.  This movement was for changing that, and for breaking the system of alliances that Pakistan had built to subordinate itself to the West.

Now go forward.  Between 1988 (after the death of another Pakistan dictator, general Zia-ul-Haq) and Musharraf’s coup, you had Benazir Bhutto and another series of short-lived Prime Ministers, followed by the military stepping in.  And now you’ve had elections, that Musharraf has won, but not without creating some major contradictions.

Like the emergence of the Islamists.

Yes.  This is the one that is most discussed in the West.  The large share of seats won by the MMA, the coalition of Islamist political parties, is partly attributable to Musharraf’s rigging as discussed above.  It’s also because they were the only party that was campaigning on an anti-Musharraf, anti-US platform.  Their showing was strongest in the North West Frontier Province (the border province with Pakistan) and Baluchistan, and in big cities with large Pathan and Afghan populations.  So voting for them was an expression of resistance to Musharraf and the US war on terror. 

Do you think that the Islamists are going to use this space that they have won in the elections, or are they going to flounder?

Historically, the Islamists are in a new position as a major political movement.  Their role traditionally has been that of a client of the military.  They have always done politics by trying to incite the military to overthrow elected governments—for their weakness, for their capitulation to the West and to India.  But now they see the military under Musharraf as pro-Western, and even anti-Islamist, which means the Islamists have to confront their own patrons.   

Now that they have won such a large, unexpected share of seats they probably are unsure what to do.  Their dilemma is: should they try to look like serious, moderate politicians and adopt a gradualist approach—go out of their way to present themselves as sensitive, sympathetic, moderate leaders?

They are doing this.  In the Pakistani English-language press, the Friday Times for example, there have been a series of interviews with some of these Islamist leaders, like Maulana Noorani from the Jamiat –i-Ulema Pakistan, one of these parties with a power base on the Afghan border and in Baluchistan.  Journalists ask them—you’ve said you’re against Musharraf, you’re against the alliance with the US, what will you do if you’re in power?  And they’ve answered—we won’t do anything to harm the national interest.  We have to go slowly, think things through, decide in parliament.  They ask Noorani, when you form the government in the Northwest Frontier Province, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have taken refuge from the US bombing, will you end the effort to chase them down?  And they’ve answered that they’ll wait and see, make a decision based on the evidence. 

The leader of Pakistan’s strongest Islamist party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, is Qazi Hussain Ahmad.  When he was asked what Musharraf should do, he answered that while Musharraf shouldn’t be president and chief of army staff at the same time, he understands that the transfer of power is delicate.

While they are meeting Western diplomats in Islamabad, they are promising not to break any of Pakistan’s commitments to the World Bank or IMF, that they’ll be responsible with the nuclear bomb. 

To their own constituents, in the Urdu press, the Islamists are talking about a revolution.  About eradicating Western influence, and so on.

The tension between these two positions can’t be sustained.  From here there are two possibilities.  There is now a process of formation of coalition governments, and if the Islamists are left out of the government they will end up in opposition and have less incentive to be moderate.  If they come into a governing coalition, this gives them a share of the spoils, the legitimacy that office brings, and a chance to start to carry out their long term agenda. 

What is that agenda, though?  Is it essentially one of social control?

If the Islamists end up in a coalition government, they will have been told by Musharraf that there is no question of touching the economy or the commitment to the World Bank, IMF, structural adjustment and so on.  They will have been told that there is no question of changing the relationship with the US.  If they try, Musharraf will use his powers as President to dissolve Parliament. So the Islamists will go for a social agenda— the kind of agenda the military won’t care about, that other politicians won’t oppose.  An agenda of oppressing minorities and women and Islamising public and private life. This is the past pattern. 

The difference between now and the past is that Ayub Khan was a dictator and also a modernist.  But after Ayub, politicians who have needed some advantage, who have felt the heat on something, have sought to placate the Islamists and the easy way to do this has been be letting them have their way on social policy.

All the politicians did this, including Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – Benazir’s father.  But it was another dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, who introduced Islamism in a systematic way into the education system in the 1980s.

As a result many of the young voters of this last election—and Musharraf lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 to try to bring people in who weren’t predisposed to voting for established parties like the PML and PPP—are people who have been brought up in an education system that has been systematically Islamized.  It will be interesting to see, when the analysis is properly done, what percentage of the younger voters did vote for the Islamists, because that will show what we can expect for the future.

So if Musharraf was the winner, who was the loser?

The people of Pakistan, and especially the poor, for several reasons.

First, because Musharraf has ensured his own rule and the rule of the military, which means a continuation of high military spending, a continuation of the confrontation with India.  It means a continuation of the commitment to IMF structural adjustment that has caused the poverty rate to go from 18% to 33%, a near doubling, in the past 10 years. 

Poverty is likely to continue and escalate, because there’s very little incentive for domestic or international capital to invest.  Without serious social change, which seems unlikely in the near future, and without any prospects for capital investment, it’s hard to imagine how poverty could get anything but worse in the next few years.

Another loss for the poor has to do with politics.  In the decade after General Zia’s death, we had the emergence of a generation that was able to start to learn about how to deal with elected officials, how to deal with democracy and accountability.  That’s all been crushed now.  This new government might have the vote but everyone understands that their existence is owed to Musharraf’s blessing and not any support or platform or constituency in the population.  Democracy, the mechanism where the poor turn their aspirations into entitlements that carry power, has been eroded.  The Islamists also erode secular politics and open the door to religious sectarian and bigotry. Women and the poor lose when this happens. 

Women have suffered terribly—it was Afghan and also Pakistani women who paid the blood price of the US jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  They must not be made to pay the price of the war on terror as well.

What is in the future for Pakistan?

There is a growing crisis of legitimacy.  Slowly all the institutions of the Pakistani state and elite have lost their legitimacy.  The political parties are weak and corrupt and lack principles and commitment and organization.  The supreme court has shown that it is not at all independent.  The taxation system is completely unconnected to any notion of justice or law.  The military is an instrument for seeking its own position and privilege. 

What are the implications of this loss of legitimacy?  The institutions end up looking for external support. So Pakistan has tied itself to an American project for the third time in the century.  The first was the war on communism in the 1950s and 1960s, when the elite and army found a red under every bed.  Then it was the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Now there is the war on terrorism. They will find a radical Islamist under every bed. 

Seen this way, the Islamist success in the elections serves Musharraf and the elite.  They can say look, the radical Islamists are winning, you need us, please send us guns and money.  We are all that stand between you and the deluge. And the guns and money are coming—Musharraf’s been rewarded handsomely: the coup has been forgiven, the façade of elections has been rubber-stamped, the arms are flowing freely again after embargoes due to Pakistan’s nuclear program were lifted.

What are the implications of this relationship with the US for Pakistani-Indian relations? 

India has tried to use the language of the war on terror to paint Pakistan into a box, saying that Pakistan is a terrorist state and pointing to evidence of Pakistan-supported atrocities in Kashmir.  But in this situation I think that Pakistan will be able to claim the upper hand.  Pakistan can use its weakness as a lever, to say to the US—you have to deal with us, or we’ll go under and the Islamists will come to power.  Stalemate.

In the short term at least the Pakistanis and the Indians would like to shift their gaze away from one another so they can try to cultivate their relations with the US and set their economies in order.  They won’t be looking to resolve the problem but for a temporary détente.

Might a domestic crisis in either country make them play the ‘Kashmir card’ again?

Kashmir may flare again because of a domestic crisis, or simply because of the passage of time.  Both countries have huge military programs and they need Kashmir to justify them.  It’s a successful tool for political reasons and will recur.

But Kashmir is increasingly a problem for India as much as Pakistan when they deal with the rest of the world.  India’s economy, for example, is now one of the fastest growing in the world, growing at 5-6% a year, with lots of foreign and domestic investment.  In Pakistan that isn’t the case.  In India, high-tech, computer-oriented industries are seen as a key, strategic sector of the economy. This matters a lot in aspirational terms— it is what India’s elite wants India to be seen as (rather than the desperately poor agricultural country India is for most of its people).  For this elite economy, confidence is critical, and there are Indian capitalists who are pressuring Delhi saying, how are we supposed to get software contracts when investors are afraid of nuclear war? 

What about Pakistan’s other neighbor?  What will Pakistan do in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is no longer in Pakistan’s hands.  Afghan policy is made by the United States.  It’s all but a colony now.  It’s not a colony in the sense that there are resources there, but it is a place that needs to be pacified.

So the US is there, sponsoring the warlords, with President Karzai at the head because he has no constituency of his own, handing out guns to make people happy.  When you believe as the US does that power flows from the barrel of a gun, you talk to the people with guns, and you deal with them, make friends with them, by giving them what they want – which is more power, which means more guns. Years later you find there are all these people with guns everywhere, and some of them will turn these guns on you. 

But isn’t there pressure from the Islamists to act in Afghanistan?

The Islamists in Pakistan are going to form the provincial government on the border with Afghanistan.  The North West Frontier Province is the province that also has most of the Afghan refugees.  It is the province where the Taliban and al-Qaeda are, right now.  So it will be a battleground.  The question for the Islamists there is, will Musharraf make it worth their while to let the US and the Pakistani military continue the crackdown against them.

There is another question though: even if the US, the Pakistani government, military, and Islamist politicians, all agree—will they be able to stop terrorism?  Will they be able to stop things like the recent bombings in Karachi?

This is a dilemma.  All this discussion focuses on the Islamist groups that have won in the elections.  But there are many Islamists, Jihadis, who have no interest in elections and have already adopted armed struggle.  What role do they have? 

Until now the Pakistani military has played a shell game with them—rounding them up, to show the U.S. they are doing something about terrorism, and then letting them out because they lack evidence to convict them for anything.  

As institutional legitimacy erodes and parliament shows its incapacity, the space opens up for ever-more radical Islamist politics and movements that will actually look to seizing state power in an armed struggle.

In Pakistan the kind of counterinsurgency effort the US would like to see might just be infeasible.  Karachi is a city of 10 million people.  What can you do?  The Jihadis will go deeper underground. 

And if the US goes to war with Iraq, the Islamist parties and the Islamist underground will be having conversations and debates as to what kinds of interventions they can make.  This is possibly a grave risk to Pakistan of the U.S. interest in war against Iraq.

What about social movements that aren’t part of the institutions of the government?  There is a peasant movement in Okara, for example, and others.  Can you talk about those?

There is a third Pakistan.  The media only ever focuses on two.  The first Pakistan is the military, Kashmir, nuclear weapons and the relations with India.  The second Pakistan is the Islamists.  But the third Pakistan is also very active, and important, and hardly ever talked about.

This the Pakistan of movements and campaigns.  In the Punjab, there is a struggle over land, state land, that was leased to peasants and worked by families, in some cases for 100 years.  The state promised them these lands in order to get them to move there and farm, and the leases were supposed to become permanent.  Now the government wants to try to introduce corporate agriculture, probably to grow flowers or something that has export value, and so Pakistan wants to lease the land to multinational corporations.  So the government is trying to change the leases so as to take the land back from the peasants.

This has triggered the largest peasant movement Pakistan has seen in decades.  Several hundred thousand are involved now and the communities are under siege.  The Pakistani military and paramilitaries have surrounded villages, cut water and electricity to them in some cases, to pressure farmers to sign leases that have no right to renewal.

The peasants have received considerable support from human rights groups, women’s groups—but they are struggling not only against the state, but also directly against the military since some of the land in dispute is administered by the Pakistani military. 

It is a determined, sustained struggle and the outcome isn’t clear.  In a different circumstance the elections could have been a great vehicle for making this an issue, for forcing politicians to take a stand one way or another. But Musharraf tried to make sure that this was an issue-free election. 

Elsewhere, students and teachers are struggling against the privatization of education.  There have been marches, protests, sit-ins, that have been put down by the police with force.  One hopes that the students and peasants can make links, because the links are there to be made, against a pattern of economic policy that privileges the market and profit over people. 

In fact ZNet has articles about the peasant struggle in its South Asia Section—one by a young woman, Asha Amirali, another by Pervez Hoodbhoy.  Amirali is a young activist who has thrown herself in to work with the peasants as part of a new People’s Rights Movement.  Pervez Hoodbhoy has a national and an international profile as one of Pakistan’s leading scientists and public intellectuals. Their getting involved shows that there are important possibilities.  People are fighting back.

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