Some prospective Pakistani voters may have stayed home during Monday's parliamentary election, fearing terrorist attacks or other kinds of pressure, but enough turned out to send a loud message to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. The ruling party that supports the beleaguered leader was trounced in the election, which went more smoothly—and less violently—than many had expected.
The two leading opposition parties won an easy majority of the seats in the country's lower house of parliament, but the archrivals now face the challenging task of forging a coalition government.
Preliminary results suggest that the Pakistan Peoples Party, led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto until her assassination in December, garnered the most votes. Many political analysts in Pakistan believe that the PPP will first try to negotiate with the right-wing Pakistan Muslim League, led by Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister.
But any coalition deal faces three tough hurdles:
The future of Pakistan's independent judiciary. It was Musharraf's sacking of the country's chief Supreme Court justice that turned the bulk of Pakistanis against him. Sharif has demanded the reinstatement of all the justices fired by Musharraf, while the PPP worries that the return of those justices could jeopardize a controversial order by Musharraf to dismiss pending corruption charges against Bhutto's husband, the acting party caretaker.
Musharraf's fate. Despite the landslide victory by anti-Musharraf forces, it will still be very difficult to impeach the man who ruled Pakistan for nearly eight years as Army chief—a post he only recently gave up. For one thing, it would take a two-thirds majority in the lower house to approve impeachment. An even larger obstacle is the Senate, where Musharraf's ruling party remains in firm control.
But it will be difficult for either leading opposition party to work with Musharraf. He and Sharif have a long-standing dislike for each other, while PPP backers blame Musharraf for lax security that aided Bhutto's assassin.
Musharraf, for his part, is facing increased pressure to resign.
"Now Musharraf should read that the time has come when he should quit," says Ahmed Bilal Mahboob, who runs PILDAT, a local nonprofit group that supports election reform. "He should understand that the people have expressed their no-confidence in his policies. His peaceful ouster will save the country from any further crisis."
If Musharraf remains as president, the government could descend into a prolonged power struggle.
Pakistan's role in the U.S. effort against al Qaeda. While PPP leaders have been clear that they will work closely with U.S. officials to battle al Qaeda operatives in the country's lawless tribal regions, Sharif has been less categorical. Still, any government is likely to continue some level of effort, in part because tribal extremists who operate there also post a threat to the central government itself.
"I think the two parties will manage to narrow down their differences on this core issue and find a way," says Shafqat Mahmud, an Islamabad-based political analyst.
—With Aamir Latif in Pakistan