Pakistan Elections Analysis: Free and Fair?

02/19/2008 02:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

PAKISTAN--If you follow events over the past months, the general consensus is that the election process has been neither free nor fair. Neither the judiciary nor the Election Commission was independent. The interim government certainly wasn't. The media was hobbled. The state of emergency called by President Musharraf just months before the elections prevented effective electioneering by the politicians. And perhaps most noted was the lack of security, not just in the FATAregion and NWFP, but across Pakistan as a whole.

So given this context, there were many concerns about how election day would be run. Turnout was low, but it is unclear whether this resulted from apathy (the 2002 turnout was only at around 40%) or from security concerns; we heard both arguments. Women were disenfranchised in some areas - there are anecdotes about political agreements that women's votes would not be counted in areas in the FATA - but in many stations that I visited, women were out in force and engaged more than men.

In fact, what is clear is that we just don't know how legitimate events were on the day. But the calmness in many of the towns and the relative security surprised many.

Also surprising to many is just how clearly the voters sent a message. Musharraf's party, the PML-Q, has lost seats across the board. So have many of its allies, including the MMA, the religious coalition, which has been ousted in the NWFP. The overall winners are both the PPP and the PML-N.

But election day was just one moment in a longer process. The next weeks will truly show whether the people's voices are being heard. Starting this evening, the PPP will debate with whom they ought to build a coalition to rule (they did not win a majority that would have allowed them to govern alone). If one follows history, it seems most likely that they will ally with the PML-Q, as in doing so they would be able to run the Punjab Province, the most important (while the PML-N won the most votes here, in coalition the PPP and PML-Q could rule). Alternatively, they might decide to follow what appears to be the desires of the people, and ally with the PML-N, perhaps even with enough other smaller parties to gain the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution and remove Musharraf.

We must not forget that this is the beginning of a long process. Whether the people's desires are heard depends on many decisions still to come. And whether they build a new and more effective government will be years in the making. But yesterday, a percentage, albeit a small one, had enough belief in the process to try to make it happen.

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