The results of Pakistan’s elections last month threw up no great surprises. Perhaps the only unexpected thing about them was that they passed relatively peacefully, with few attempts to disrupt the polling on the day, and only half-hearted attempts by the Musharraf regime to prevent the opposition parties’ successes. What then are we to make of the results? Everyone analysing them drew different conclusions. For some, the success of secular parties reflected a rejection of Islam and “extremism”. More accurately, many analysts recognised a protest vote against Musharraf.
Perhaps all that can be said with certainty is that few in the country really believe that Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif represent the best hopes for the country. Both are discredited leaders viewed with scepticism even by many of their supporters. Both have records of appalling corruption and venality in power, Sharif during his own terms as prime minister, and Zardari during the rule of his late wife, Benazir Bhutto. Both owe their success in these elections to local votes in their regional strongholds, and short-term political factors; Zardari because he was leading the party regarded as most likely to topple Musharraf, and Sharif because he was regarded as most likely to prevent an outright Zardari victory.
So, does the fact that Pakistan has had democratic elections mean its problems are behind it? Of course not. The elections were like a multiple-choice test in which there were only wrong answers. People supported the leaders they hoped would be less wrong for the time being. Such is the nature of elections in the established political orders in most countries. The political patterns are established and the established elites compete for power within these parameters. Real change is impossible. In Pakistan, as in so many other countries, including western ones, genuine “democratization” can occur only if the established order is swept away and a fresh start made, as it was in Iran nearly three decades ago.