Pakistan and India have both held important elections in recent weeks. In Pakistan, the government party won as expected. In Kashmir, the pro-India party that has ruled the restive region for decades was routed. Even more important than the results is the fact that the votes were held at all. Now, both governments can get down to business. High on their agendas is the resumption of a dialogue between the two longtime antagonists.
Pakistan held elections to fulfill a promise made by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf when he seized power in a coup in 1999. To calm international fears about a military government in Islamabad, he pledged to return Pakistan to democratic rule. Unfortunately, the president rigged the vote. He designed rules to eliminate secular opposition political parties. He also required legislative candidates to have four-year college degrees, which eliminated nearly 40 percent of the potential candidates. The president made an exception for candidates from religious parties, allowing them to use certificates from religious schools to qualify.
That exception may prove costly. While the progovernment Quaid-e-Azam faction of the Pakistan Muslim League won 70 seats in the National Assembly, an alliance of six hardline religious parties claimed majorities in two provincial legislative assemblies and won 47 of 272 open seats in the National Assembly. The Pakistan People’s Party, which is headed by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who is currently living in exile, claimed second and has begun negotiations with the Islamists about forming a government — a test of the president’s promise to honor the election results.
The Islamists’ strong showing is no direct threat to the national government. Mr. Musharraf has jiggered the constitution so that he retains supreme power. The president can dismiss Parliament as well as the prime minister, and the national security council, which he leads, can veto Cabinet decisions. The security services maintain an iron grip on foreign policy.
Still, the Islamic parties’ better than expected showing will give them considerable power in the Parliament. Given the hostility between the government parties and the secular opposition, they will prove to be the swing vote in any governing coalition. Although they ran on a platform that called for the removal of all U.S. forces in Pakistan and the imposition of Islamic law, their real influence is likely to be in social policy, especially reform of the religious schools, which have been breeding grounds for extremists. Their control of legislatures in provinces that border Afghanistan, and where members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban are likely to have fled, will also create headaches for the national government and the U.S.
A month ago, India began long-promised elections in Kashmir, the mostly Muslim province that has been the focus of Islamic extremists since it joined India when the country was granted independence. The results, available after several weeks of voting, confirmed the deep resentment toward the National Conference, the pro-India party that has run the troubled province for nearly half a century. Anger has been mounting over corruption, vote-rigging and the NC’s willingness to turn a blind eye to the national government’s seeming complicity in the persecution of Muslims elsewhere in India.
The results leave the NC as the largest party in the provincial assembly, but it lost its two-thirds majority. Having held 56 seats before the vote, it now has 28. Its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was humiliated, dropping from eight seats to one. The big winner was the Congress Party, which now has 21 seats; it enjoys the support of small groups and is ready to form a coalition with the pro-independence People’s Democratic Party, which won 15 seats in the 88-seat legislature. While the BJP lost heavily, Mr. Vajpayee can rightfully claim that the election is a victory for democracy, India and his party, which honored its pledge to hold a vote.
Predictably, both governments dismissed their neighbor’s election. India complains that the Pakistan government, which it claims supports Muslim terrorists in Kashmir, rigged the voted to acquire the veneer of democratic legitimacy. Pakistan claims the 46 percent voter turnout invalidates the Kashmir ballot, but then Islamabad will not accept any election that does not endorse independence for the disputed province.
The elections were a success — if only because they were held and both countries can look to the future. Both elections endorsed centrist parties that favor dialogue and improving the lives of citizens. That should provide the basis for negotiations — if politicians have the courage to quit blaming the other for their own problems.
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