February 18, 2008, will be remembered by Pakistanis as a day of reckoning — a day that held importance for the political future of Pakistan.
The day began with serious allegations of pre-poll rigging, badly compiled voter lists, fears of terrorist attacks, and an expectation of low voter turnout among the 81 million eligible voters in our country of 160 million.
Early in the morning, turnout was indeed low but picked up later in the day as lines to cast votes grew. Statistics coming in from the Election Commission of Pakistan recorded the voter turnout at over 45%, a number much higher than initially expected.
The high voter turnout was attributable to several factors. The fact that voting continued smoothly through the morning without incident or violence meant that more people were encouraged to come out and vote later on.
But more simply — people wanted their voices to be heard: the recent spate of terrorism, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto of PPP, and the deeply unpopular actions of President Musharraf over the past several months drove many to the polls to influence their country’s direction.
Contrary to popular expectations of rigging efforts resulting in an unjustifiable victory for the government, the results were astounding. All parties that supported President Musharraf, except MQM, received a drubbing at the ballot box that was impossible to disguise. The religious parties in the troubled NWFP province which had Musharraf’s support were also routed.
Local pundits commented that the documented reports by watchdog organizations of pre-poll efforts of manipulation had subjected the election to such scrutiny that any plans of rigging must have been foiled. A record-high number of international and domestic observers as well as media were present at this election. In addition, opposition political parties claimed they had ensured large numbers of people to come out and vote and thus thwart any chances of rigging.
Most felt that President Musharraf had no one but himself to blame for this election in which his own party, PML (Q), was so decisively defeated. Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, who had never lost an election in the district of Rawalpindi, lost badly and was seen looking disheartened and angry. The Chaudhry brothers, heading the party, also faced defeat in their own hometown of Gujrat.
The deeply secular PPP led the votes in the National and Sind Provincial Assemblies. Another secular party, ANP, swept the elections in the troubled province of NWFP. The centrist PML(N) got the second highest number of seats in the National and the highest number of seats in the Punjab Assembly.
The only successes pro-Musharraf parties had were in parts of urban Sind, where the MQM preserved their vote bank, and in Balochistan province, where PML(Q) got the highest seats. In Balochistan, most local opposition parties had boycotted the elections, considering them illegal under President Musharraf’s disputed presidency.
The reason most commonly cited by analysts for opposition leader Nawaz Sharif’s victory is his promise of restoring deposed judges of the Supreme Court and high courts. The PPP benefited from the sympathy vote after the assassination of their leader, Ms. Bhutto.
Unable to ignore the anti-Musharraf direction of the election results, the Pakistani leader was quick to point out that “these elections were held for the parliament and prime minister and not for the office of president and I have been elected as the president of Pakistan by the previous assembly.”
He also said that he is ready to work jointly with any party who won the elections for the prosperity and progress of Pakistan and that he was hopeful for the brighter future of Pakistan.
PPP and PML(N) supporters have been celebrating their victory as the respective leadership of these parties has started internal meetings to decide coalition partners to form the next government.
Speculations have already started over who the next prime minister would be. Coalition possibilities are also being discussed in the media. PPP, with the highest number of seats in the national assembly, is expected to lead the coalition government, most likely with PML(N).
Makhdom Amin Fahim of PPP seems to be the candidate for prime minster with Aitzaz Ahsan, another major leader of the party, having also suggested his name. Aitzaz, though he always said he was never a candidate, was supported by many to be the candidate. His support for Amin Fahim would carry reasonable weight.
While it is now largely agreed that the elections were fair and reflected the true opinion of the people, the polls did have a dark side as well.
In some areas of NWFP closer to the border with Afghanistan, many women voters were not allowed to vote. It is hoped that the landslide win of ANP, the secular party in that province, can bring a change to that.
Also, it must be remembered that the chief justice along with a number of other judges and lawyers were under arrest by the outgoing Musharraf government when the elections took place — their votes weren’t counted.
Both PML(N) and PPP have cited their resolve to bring the country back on the path of complying with its constitution, renewing efforts to root out terrorism, and tackle the problem of severe inflation. Now all the Pakistani people can do is hope that they keep their promises.
Ghalia Aymen is Pakistan correspondent for Pajamas Media.