Monday, February 18, 2008

Pakistan’s tryst with destiny

There were many fake starts. Dates were scheduled and cancelled. Pakistan procrastinated on its polls multiple times. Its powerful army refused to budge. Then suddenly the tables turned. The lawyers rebelled. Its civilian leaders got the much needed political fuel. Long exiled, they cantered back to their motherland. And just as people felt a glimmer of hope, there was blood. Slayers of the worst order roamed at will. Soon they lay the most sinister ambush and slaughtered Pakistan’s most darling daughter – Benazir. There was shock and blue funk. My eyes got moist.

Yet hope lingered on. The battle betwixt the slayers and people continued. Meantime Musharraf's ratings slumped. The world said its obituaries for Pakistan. There was a talk of de-nuking the only Islamic nation with the big bomb. Anarchy reigned supreme in her alleys. The country bled profusely. Yet her people stood firm. New election dates were set. February 18, 2007. A new countdown for Pakistan’s tryst with destiny began.

Almost everything in these elections has been unprecedented. Such is the atmosphere of fear that most candidates chose not to address electoral rallies – which are so key to elections in this part of the world -- and instead campaigned through mass media. TV and newspapers stood up against staggering odds – despite a gag order -- to bring out truth to people. Legal luminaries like Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan faced house arrest for months. Yet the resolve of people did not falter. For once it looks like the people’s power is going to prevail.

However the road to democracy is still fraught with danger. Musharraf – once revered -- and now hated guts continues to make threatening overtures. The Sharif brothers’ nomination papers were rejected outright and now Mush says his party -- the PML-Q --will win this election. The statement comes from an authority which is supposed to be plain neutral. In any case, neutrality looks like in suspended animation in Pakistan. Right now -- the judiciary, election commission and local governments – look suspect.

The fear of rigging is real. PML-Q in all objectivity cannot garner more than 20% of the votes. A free, frank and fair election is most likely to produce PPP – Bhutto’s party – as the winner. Nawaz Sharif's PML-N is another strong entity. For a simple majority in Pakistan, a party needs 136 seats in the senate. Since the Bhutto aura is expansive in Sind and her brutal murder a clear emotive issue, PPP is likely to lap 50 seats from the Bhutto land. Punjab – 148 seats up for grabs – will be crucial. Nawaz is popular after his recent dignified posturing. The wily Chaudary brothers [generational supporters of army] are organized and Mush-backed. So Punjab can end up with a fractured mandate. Let’s assume 65+ to PML-N, 20+ to PML-Q and 30+ to PPP. That leaves out NWFP [called Sarhad] and Balochistan.

PPP is the only political outfit with a nation wide appeal and logically it may suffice with 15 odd seats in NWFP and another 7-8 in Balochistan and FATA put together. This is a realistic estimate: Single largest party PPP 110+ seats. I reckon an alliance with Nawaz [who may lap touching 100 odd seats] or one of the smaller parties – like the MQM/JUI – may get it past simple majority.

Of course I am being speculative here and the end results may vary. Mush may rig big time to get his cronies back in power or PPP may simply sweep these elections. Both situations are hypothetical and probable.

For the future of Pakistan and for results of the most watched, debated, bloody fight in its chequered history -- pockmarked by chaos, coups and clamor -- we wait for a few more hours.

I hope Pakistan’s prayers are answered this time.