For years Pervez Musharraf’s supporters, especially in Washington, have been arguing that it is necessary to support Pakistan’s strongman so as to avoid a takeover by Islamic fundamentalists. These realpolitikers scoffed at the need to hold free elections, which, they feared, would bring in followers of Osama bin Laden.
Now, at long last, semi-free parliamentary elections are in the offing, and the religious parties are expected to have a poor showing. The Washington Post reports: “Just 4 percent of Pakistanis said in a recent survey that they intended to support the religious parties in the Jan. 8 elections.”
The religious extremists have been hurt by their poor record in governing North-West Frontier Province, which they took over in 2002. “While they ran in 2002 on a vow of clean government and improved citizen services,” reporter Griff Witte writes, “leaders of religious parties have fallen prey to the same allegations of corruption and lackluster governance that shadow the nation’s secular parties.” Now the Islamist politicos are finding that, just as in French and German elections, anti-American rhetoric cannot make up for a poor record in handling domestic concerns.
In retrospect it looks as if 2002, when the religious parties captured 12 percent of the vote, might be their highwater mark—and that was only possible because Musharraf hobbled the ability of mainstream opposition parties to compete. The parties are still not entirely free to do so, even though the state of emergency has been lifted and Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have returned home. Musharraf continues to cling to the presidency after belatedly giving up his post as army chief. But Pakistan seems slowly to be heading toward a reestablishment of democracy. The new polls indicate that this is a development the West should welcome, not fear.