Ballot blunder

Pakistan | Musharraf's maneuvering only helps hardline Islamic parties

Issue: "Brothers up in arms," Oct. 26, 2002

When President Pervez Musharraf made aggressive changes to Pakistan's election laws, it was like walking the star hitter in the final inning of the World Series. Savvy managers know they have just handed subsequent batters the best reason ever to knock it out of the park. And that's what happened to Mr. Musharraf. His constitutional maneuvering to limit candidates instead handed hardline Islamic parties their largest victory ever in nationwide polls.

The Fundamentalist Islamic coalition MMA (otherwise known as Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal) made big gains in the Oct. 11 elections, winning 50 National Assembly seats where it previously held only two. It becomes the third largest party behind the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (77 seats), which supports army general Musharraf; and the Pakistan People's Party of former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif (62 seats).

By banning the return of Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif, Mr. Musharraf alienated non-hardliners, forcing them into the arms of fringe groups. What hurt more, in the end, was a Musharraf-crafted law requiring all candidates to be college graduates. That eliminated two-fifths of lead party nominees, while nearly all MMA candidates have religious studies degrees. The MMA capitalized on anti-U.S. sentiment in the Afghan border areas, where support for fleeing Taliban fighters ousted by the United States remains strong.

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The MMA may be needed by either lead party to form a coalition government. MMA chairman Shah Ahmed Noorani told reporters the first priority of his party's newly elected lawmakers will be to enact Sharia, or Islamic law. Mr. Musharraf may hold the last card, having retained for himself power to dissolve parliament. But his promise to return to civilian, democratic government will be broken if he does so.


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