| Qazi Hussain Ahmed at a celebration rally. (AFP)
Islamabad/New Delhi, Oct. 11: General Pervez Musharraf today escorted Pakistan closer to a “democracy” that saw the “King’s party” emerge as the largest group in the election held yesterday and the rise of a religious fundamentalist kingmaker.
With results in from 226 of the 272 seats, the Pakistan Muslim League (QA), loyal to Musharraf, had 70. But the balance of power appeared to rest with hardline Islamic parties gathered under the flag of the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which won 47 seats, dramatically improving its tally from only two in 1997.
Musharraf’s main political rivals — Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif — both out of the country and excluded from the polls, performed well below expectations and alleged rigging.
Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party won 48 seats and Sharif’s Muslim League faction only 13.
“It is a revolution,” MMA vice-president Qazi Hussain Ahmed told supporters on the outskirts of Peshawar. “We will not accept US bases and Western culture.”
Religious parties tapped the anger at Pakistan’s support for the US-led war on terror to virtually sweep the polls in conservative parts of western Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. Some of these parties are vocal supporters of the Taliban.
The MMA could also become the strongest party in the two provincial assemblies in Baluchistan and that North West Frontier Province where al Qaida and Taliban activists are suspected to be hiding and where Pakistani law-enforcers have little say.
There were fears that the US job of hunting down al Qaida and Taliban remnants would become more difficult than it already is with the hostile MMA calling the shots in these regions.
Is this bad for Musharraf' Opinion is divided. The MMA’s strong showing could prove to be a headache for Musharraf because his closeness to the US has not always gone down well at home and the grouping could act as a funnel for that unhappiness to pour into the national assembly.
With a share in the power, the MMA could even precipitate a confrontation with the President over foreign policy.
Opponents of this line of argument, however, point to the fact that the MMA was among the only groups allowed to campaign freely before the polls while Musharraf went to the greatest lengths to cripple the challenge from Bhutto and Sharif.
These observers suggested that the result suited Musharraf because he can now parade the growing strength of the religious fundamentalists to emphasise his own usefulness to the Americans and thereby extract more concessions. It will also help him tell Washington not to lean on him too much to crack down on fundamentalist groups for fear of a backlash.
“My information...is that they are giving (North West) Frontier (Province) to the MMA,” Bhutto said. “They are doing this so they can tell the US: ‘you need a tinpot dictator strutting on the stage, otherwise the Taliban will take over’.”
Delhi agrees with this assessment. Indian officials said the MMA was formed with blessings from Musharraf who tried to gain their support. These forces, Delhi believes, can be used if and when Musharraf desires to foment trouble in Kashmir.
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