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Aijaz Ahmad: Rise of secular urban forces in Pakistan; US not controlling the process (1 of 2)

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ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER: Pakistan’s ruling party conceded defeat in the country’s parliamentary elections. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) won a combined victory to claim over half of the seats available in the National Assembly. To further analyze the situation, The Real News spoke to Senior News Analyst Aijaz Ahmad. Aijaz is the senior editorial consultant and political commentator for the Indian news magazine Frontline, and has written numerous articles on South Asia and the Middle East.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: So it looks like President Musharraf’s party is going down to a rather inglorious defeat. Some of the fears before the election that the election might be rigged, seems not to have taken place. At least the anti-Musharraf vote seems so big that it won’t matter. You’ve just returned from Pakistan. What did you observe and what’s your analysis of this?

AIJAZ AHMAD, SENIOR NEWS ANALYST: Everyone was saying that if the elections are allowed to proceed in a fair manner, this is the kind of result that they were anticipating. Also, there was a widespread sense that the military would probably allow the elections to be fair, and let the chips fall as they might. The military in Pakistan today is more unpopular than it has been since the war of 1971, that is to say, in about almost 40 years. So the new high command that has come in wants the army to adopt a much lower profile in Pakistani politics, to withdraw from politics, let the civilians run the show, let Musharraf be more or less sacrificed, so that in a year or two, they anticipate that the new coalition that is coming in will begin to fall apart, and the military can again resume its role at that point. The hatred of the military in Pakistan is enormous, including the whole issue of corruption.

JAY: The New York Times played this story as not just a defeat for Musharraf but a defeat for US policy, or at least a rejection of US policy by the people of Pakistan. What do you think of that?

AHMAD: What was very striking during my visit—and I must say I was only in Karachi and thereabouts—was that there was virtually no discussion of either the war on terror, or the United States, or foreign policy in general. People were completely preoccupied with the domestic situation inside the country. Everyone seemed to believe that the whole issue of Islamic terrorism is vastly exaggerated, both by the US, as well as the Pakistani establishment. In the Northwestern Frontier Provinces, where the Islamicist insurgency is located very largely, the coalition of six Islamicist parties were swept away entirely, not only on a national level, but also in the Assembly elections. We don’t have full picture of all the seats, but at last count in the North-Western Frontier Province Provincial Assembly, the Islamicists had less than 10 seats out of a100.

JAY: So it’s not just a rejection of Musharraf; it’s a rejection of all the extreme Islamist parties.

AHMAD: There is a kind of a revolt in Pakistan against Musharraf, and it is really the rise of the secular middle classes in the urban cities, in the urban centers, and really of the secular vote across the country. That is a remarkable aspect of these elections.

JAY: Is the coalition committed to the removal of Musharraf? And would the army allow it?

AHMAD: The two political parties, the PPP, the late Benazir’s Party, Peoples Party of Pakistan, and Nawaz Sharif’s Party, the Muslime League, they have together won a very clear majority. There is another party, the MQN, which has 20 seats or so, and there’s ANP, which has 10 seats, and then there are independents. What they’re going to try to do, and in this Nawaz Sharif is much more determined than Zardari, Nawaz Sharif is saying openly that “We have to get rid of the general, we have to impeach him, we have to bring the judges back,” and so on. It is possible—whether or not it will happen we do not know, but it is possible that these various forces may actually come together and have a two-thirds majority to be able to impeach Musharraf. But in the interim, Musharraf’s position has become so untenable, the political party that he had identified himself with so thoroughly has lost ground so very much, that even without impeachment it is very difficult to see how he can be president, running the government with a parliament in which two-thirds or more of the people are opposed to him. He doesn’t have a leg to stand on. And the kind of rumors that are flying around in Pakistan right now suggest that he may simply be invited to take a plane out to Geneva. The United States certainly has to reconsider the whole of its approach to Pakistani politics, to the kind of civilian government that is going to emerge. It is not going to consist of people that the United States had committed itself to. So it’s going to be a difficult situation for reevaluation of US foreign policy as a whole, because there are really different currents in that new emerging coalition. The PPP, that is to say, Benazir’s Party, is much softer in the United States. Some of the other components of that coalition are much more hostile to the US position and so on.

JAY: Any final comment on what we should look for in the next few days?

AHMAD: Well, one thing, Paul, I must say yet again is that western audiences, western news commentators, sophisticated people who watch politics in the world should stop looking at countries from inside the prism of US policy, that what you have in Pakistan is a rapidly changing political scenario, a very vibrant political culture which is trying to put its own country together, and it is in the process of putting their own country together that there is going to be a fallout for US foreign policy. There are not, you know, rearranging power relations in their own country primarily in relation to the United States. The US has to wait in the wings to see what Pakistanis do with their own country, and then negotiate with whoever comes to power in Pakistan.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Based in New Delhi, Aijaz Ahmad has appeared many times on The Real News Network; he is Senior Editorial Consultant, and political commentator for the Indian newsmagazine, Frontline. He has taught Political Science, and has written widely on South Asia and the Middle East.