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Pakistani voters suing for moderation

Coming close on the heels of the contentious Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) by Kosovo which has caused ripples of controversy in most separatism-hit countries, including Sri Lanka, the triumph of secular parties in Pakistan's recently concluded general election is an equally urgent wake-up call to Third World states, particularly those which swear by an iron-fist military response to the terror phenomenon.

Asif Ali Zardari, center, widower of Pakistan's assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto joins hands with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, left, and Asfandyar Wali Khan during meeting of politicians in Islamabad, Pakistan on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008. The winners of Pakistan's election were assembling their lawmakers Wednesday for the first time to press President Pervez Musharraf to convene what promises to be a hostile new Parliament. (AP)

Given that the current rise in political violence could have compounded Pakistan's security concerns and tended to amass popular backing for pro-Musharraf political parties and alliances, the February 18 electoral verdict comes as a highly revealing and thought-provoking political development. Rather than boosting the electoral fortunes of pro - Musharraf political forces, the present wave of terror has only increased the popularity of Pakistan's key moderate and centrist parties, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League - N (PML-N), which bagged the majority of seats in the central legislature. It must be remembered that President Musharraf is a principal ally of the US in South Asia and is proving pivotal to the conduct of the US-led 'war on terror' in this region. Whereas, on a superficial analysis, national security concerns stemming from stepped-up terror in Pakistan, should have induced the average voter to back the Musharraf agenda and consequently the President's political allies, such expectations have been routed by the Pakistani electorate. They have preferred the secular, comparatively social democracy - oriented political parties to the pro-Musharraf political actors which have, of course, been backers of the "war on terror".

Equally thought-provoking is the triumph of the Awami National Party (ANP) in the sensitive North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), another secular party. By emerging victorious over religion-based parties in this province bordering Afghanistan, the ANP has proved that it is the main choice of the Pushtun community, who have been victims of terror over the years and whose habitation has proved vulnerable to Taliban and Al-qaeda infiltration, particularly since 2001. Said Asfandyar Wali Khan, ANP chief: "Through this election, the Pushtun people have sent a message to the world that they are neither extremists nor terrorists". More significantly, they have also indicated that they are no wholehearted endorsers of the 'war on terror'. Nor are they staunch supporters of the doctrine of the state dealing with terror with an iron fist. If this were not so they would have said 'yes' to pro-Musharraf parties or those political forces which emphasize a military solution to the terror problem.

The US would have reason to be both happy and apprehensive at the electoral verdict in Pakistan. On the one hand, the ousting of religion-based and "hardline" political parties in particularly the NWFP would lead to some relief in Washington that the Taliban or Al-qaeda would not enjoy much political leverage in the violence-affected province. This could help contain infiltration of the NWFP by anti-West militants and to a degree facilitate the 'war on terror' by making the Pakistani state's task of cracking down on terror easier.

On the other hand, the US would be concerned over the possibility of a future PPP-PML-N dominated government working towards the impeachment of Musharraf and chafe at the negative impact such a development could have on the 'war on terror'. Besides, more social-democratically inclined and moderate parties, such as the PPP, would not favour a purely military response to terror. They are likely to take a hard look at political approaches at resolving the terror tangle. This could impede the 'war on terror' and, to a degree, undermine the US agenda in South Asia.

Nevertheless, it would be the endeavour of the US to work cooperatively with a future PPP-PML-N government because a West-oriented South Asia has always been a cherished US foreign policy goal. It would not leave a power vacuum in this region which could be filled by a perceived formidable rival for global influence, such as China.

Given this backdrop, it is not without significance that US Defence Secretary Robert Gates is currently on tour in India. His talks with Indian leaders which focused on improving military and trade links between the US and India are also said to have covered the politico-military volatility of the region. Clearly, the US is guarding against every possibility of extra-regional powers, such as China, wielding any considerable influence in South Asia.

However, the Pakistani electoral verdict is an eye-opener for also the voting publics of this region or its citizenry. Currently, the policy of fighting terror with strong state-induced law and order measures has won favour among sections of this region's citizenry, with Sri Lanka proving no exception. These sections need to take cognizance of the Pakistani voters' choice. Despite suffering at the hands of terrorists, the latter have chosen to vote into office political parties which are seen as social democratic and moderate. Clearly, the average Pakistani voter does not believe that a purely military approach to resolving the terror problem is of any significance. They see the political approach to resolving terror as holding the key to their future. Nor do they believe that a 'war on terror' could yield for them any substantial benefits.

Considering the foregoing, the Pakistani voter could be said to have voted with deep foresight. They are calling on their future rulers to sue for peace rather than wage war. And the Pakistani voter could be counted on to know how to exercise his vote, given his long experience with terror and separatism.

 

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