Victors in Pakistan elections to seek dialogue with militants

Posted in Broader Middle East , Pakistan | 20-Feb-08 | Author: Carlotta Gall and Jane Perlez| Source: International Herald Tribune

Supporters of the opposition party Muttahida Qaumi Movement party, or MQM, cheering Tuesday at a post-election celebration in Karachi.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: The winners of Pakistan's parliamentary elections said Tuesday that they would take a new approach to fighting Islamic militants by pursuing more dialogue than military confrontation, and that they would undo the crackdown on the media and restore independence to the judiciary.

With nearly complete returns from Monday's vote giving it the most seats, the party of the assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, led by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, made clear that a new political order prevailed in Pakistan.

Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, said the new Parliament would reverse many of the unpopular policies that fueled the strong protest vote against President Pervez Musharraf and his party.

Bush administration officials said the United States would still like to see Pakistan's opposition leaders find a way to work with Musharraf, a staunch ally for more than six years, but conceded that the notion appeared increasingly unlikely. In comments in Ghana, where he is on a tour of African states, President George W. Bush on Wednesday praised Musharraf and said the election had been judged fair.

In an interview published Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal newspaper, Musharraf said he had no plans to step down and said he wanted to stay in office to help bring about a stable democratic government.

Though Zardari said he wanted a government of national consensus, he ruled out working with anyone from the previous government under Musharraf.

Instead he said he was talking to the leader of the other main opposition party, Nawaz Sharif, whose party finished second, about forming a coalition.

Although the resounding victory of the two parties was broadly welcomed in Pakistan, there were immediate memories of the failings of civilian governments here in the 1990s. American officials were particularly skeptical of Zardari, who has faced corruption charges in Pakistan and abroad and has come to his current position of leadership only through his wife's death.

Sharif was twice prime minister in the 1990s and faced numerous corruption charges himself after being ousted by Musharraf in a coup.

Sharif quickly announced several conditions for joining a coalition. They included the impeachment of Musharraf and the restoration of the chief justice and other Supreme Court judges suspended by the president in November.

Zardari was less categorical, not calling for Musharraf's impeachment, for instance. The struggle to end military rule and bring a return to democracy is a long, uphill battle, he said.

"We might have to take soft, small steps," he said at a news briefing at his home in the capital after a meeting of 50 senior members of the party.

Still, the first order of business will be to undo restrictions on the media and restore the independence of the judiciary, he said.

But Zardari did not specifically call for the reinstatement of the chief justice and his colleagues; there are corruption charges still pending against him.

Though he has little experience in such matters, Zardari criticized the antiterrorism policies of Musharraf, saying that he had played a double game that had led to an increase in militancy. "We feel they in the government are running with the hare and hunting with the hounds," he said.

The two opposition parties share similar views of how to tackle the terrorism problem. The new approach is more likely to be responsive to the consensus of the Pakistani public than was Musharraf's and is more likely to shun a heavy hand by the military and rely on dialogue with the militants.

Zardari said his party would seek talks with the militants in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have carved out a stronghold, as well as with the nationalist militants who have battled the Pakistani Army in Baluchistan Province.

Many in Pakistan, including several parties that boycotted the elections, have been strongly opposed to Musharraf's use of the army to battle tribesmen in the name of the campaign against terrorism, which is seen as an American agenda.

"We will have a dialogue with those who are up in the mountains and those who are not in Parliament," Zardari said. "We want to take all those along who are against Pakistan and working against Pakistan."

Some analysts saw opportunities for the United States if a new civilian government could persuade Pakistanis to get behind the fight against the militants. But past attempts to deal with the militants have left them stronger, and any policy too accommodating is likely to raise concern in Washington.

A former chief of staff of the Pakistani Army, General Jehangir Karamat, said the election of a new government should help the United States if it was looking to work with moderate forces.

"It's an opportunity to rejuvenate this whole relationship," Karamat said. "What we are seeing through these elections is moderate and liberal forces, which is absolutely great."

Other analysts agreed. The emergence of a moderate Parliament should be good news for the United States, said Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani military analyst based in Washington.

"If Parliament will now have a stronger hand than before in national decision-making, then the United States should be pleased, since it will not have to beg and cajole Pakistan to act in its own interests against the terrorists," Nawaz said.

But the results left the Bush administration, which has leaned heavily on Musharraf, scrambling to find new partners in the campaign against Islamic militants in the region. The election of a hostile Parliament is expected to further marginalize the president, or even push him out, in a country where power traditionally lies with elected prime ministers or the military chiefs who have overthrown them.

Musharraf was re-elected to another five-year term by national and provincial assemblies in October, but the constitutionality of his standing for office was vigorously contested. The new Parliament could revive that challenge and even impeach him.

Election returns, which were nearly complete, showed the Pakistan Peoples Party led by Zardari earning 87 of the 268 contested seats in the National Assembly, while Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, got 66 seats.

The former governing party that had supported Musharraf, what is known as the Q faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, won only 38 seats. It was a crashing fall for the party. At least 10 of its ministers and senior leaders lost seats.

The remaining seats were divided among seven smaller parties and factions and 27 independent candidates. Ten seats remain uncounted, according to the Election Commission.

Zardari hailed the results as proof of the national appeal of his Pakistan Peoples Party. It won seats in all four provincial assemblies and is in a position to participate in governments in three of them. "We believe that no other party has the leadership and the ability to get Pakistan out of this difficulty," he said.

Musharraf told visiting United States senators that he had accepted the election results and the defeat of his party, and would work with any coalition government that was formed.

But Zardari and Sharif have reasons to bear grudges. Zardari, who returned from exile only after Bhutto's death, spent eight years in prison on murder and corruption charges under the government of Sharif. Musharraf was army chief at the time.

Sharif was thrown out of the government in 1999 by Musharraf, who mounted a coup and arrested and then exiled him. Many Pakistanis agree that the governments of Bhutto and Sharif did not distinguish themselves. Both were ridden with corruption.

Neither Zardari nor Sharif ran for parliamentary seats themselves and so cannot immediately serve as prime minister. Zardari is expected to run for a seat to qualify, though, and Sharif could do the same.

For now, the deputy leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, is one candidate for prime minister. The choice would clearly depend on the coalition forged, however.

Zardari faces rumblings and distrust in his party, and it was not clear how well the negotiations between him and Sharif would proceed. The talks, which are expected to begin soon, are likely to be protracted.

Zardari discussed Pakistan's options with the militants in an interview last week. He said the campaign against terrorism needed to be redefined in Pakistan. He said it needed to be better explained to the people so they understood it was not America's war they were fighting, but a threat to their own nation.

Zardari said that Musharraf had lost popular support for the campaign and that the morale of the army had plummeted, asserting that only a popularly elected government with the backing of Parliament could reverse that.

He added that a counterinsurgency should be waged by the police in the tribal areas, and that Pakistan had to train and equip its police forces to curb much of the lawlessness. The army is a blunt instrument and should be used selectively so that militants are awed by its power, he said.