On November 1, 2002, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a presentation "The Pakistani Elections and the Islamist Challenge" by Anatol Lieven, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and a regular columnist for the Financial Times. Marina Ottaway of the Endowment moderated the discussion.

The October 10 Pakistani elections have given unprecedented parliamentary standing to religious-nationalist parties, while previously dominant modernist parties have relatively declined. The reverberations of war in Afghanistan continue to shake Pakistani attitudes toward the U.S. - especially among the Pashtuns of the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, where the islamist vote was concentrated - as does the prospect of U.S.-led conflict in Iraq. Meanwhile, on a more positive note, elections in Kashmir may have realigned India's and perhaps even Pakistan's perceptions of how to address that perennial source of instability.


Pakistan a Failed State?

Reflecting on his latest trip to Pakistan to observe the elections, Anatol Lieven noted that the coverage of recent developments in this country by Western media has been overstated and hyped. Reporting and commentary that have portrayed Pakistan as a failed state where terrorists operate openly, or where Islamists are taking over the country, are highly imprecise. In fact, despite Karachi being a poor and ethnically divided city, the level of political violence is much lower than before. For that matter, if one were to adjust and compare the murder rates (including political murder rate) for the population of Karachi, it comes out below the murder rate in Washington, DC.

Furthermore, Lieven challenged the perception of Pakistan as a collapsing state. Though not a very strong one, Pakistan, in comparison to Afghanistan, Chechnya or Somalia, is hardly a failed state. The only bit of Pakistan that could be characterized as such are the federally administered tribal areas along the Afghan frontier. However, it would be misleading to describe these areas as a failed state because the state never existed there at all. The Pakistani state, like the British Empire before it, has preferred to govern these areas very lightly and indirectly.


Islamist Parties in the Pakistan Elections

In his discussion of the recent elections, Lieven addressed the growing concern over the victory of Islamist parties and its possible consequences. He again criticized the Western press for inaccurate reporting that overestimated the increased presence of the Islamist parties. Many reports overstated the gained presence of the MMA (Muttahidda Majlis-E-Amal Pakistan), the alliance of several Islamist parties. While some commentators attributed to MMA up to 25% of votes, it gained only 11%.

Lieven proceeded further with an explanation as to why the MMA has been able to get a much larger proportion of seats in the Parliament than its vote would seem to justify. In Pakistan, which inherited the "first past the post" British electoral system, the number of seats in the Parliament is magnified if the vote is concentrated in one particular area rather than spread across the whole country. The MMA's vote was overwhelmingly concentrated in the Pashtun areas of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balushistan, which is also largely Pashtun. In the rest of the country, the vote for the Islamist parties went up insignificantly. Lieven accounted for the cases when the vote did increase in other areas in part by the fact that for the first time in many years the Sunni religious parties had formed an alliance, and also because for the first time they had allied with the main Shia party in Pakistan - and this could even be viewed as a promise for diminished violence between the Shia and Sunni, which has claimed far more victims in Pakistan over the years than has been claimed over the past year by Sunni radical terrorist attacks on Western targets or the Christian minority.

Lieven also added that another key reason why the MMA was able to achieve such a large proportion of votes is the deep split between the two main secular parties in the North-West Frontier Province, the Pakistan's People Party (PPPP) of Benazir Bhutto and the Awami National Party (ANP) of the Wali Khan dynasty. Although these two parties saw the threat that they were facing from the MMA and tried to make an electoral pact whereby their candidates would not work against each other, they failed to get their followers to stick to this in practice. If they had made their pact stick, they could have cut very seriously into the number of seats that the MMA won. As some Pakistani commentators suggested, the plurality of the MMA in the Provincial Assembly could have been reduced severely. (The MMA won 48 seats out of 99 in the Provincial Assembly in NWFP).

Connection to Afghanistan

Lieven continued by addressing the most dangerous aspect of the Pakistani elections, which is the connection with the situation in Afghanistan. The significance of these elections in relation to Afghanistan is due, first, to the MMA's victory being largely attributed to the Pashtuns' support and to the anger of Pakistani Pashtuns at the deterioration of the position of the Pashtuns of Afghanistan as a result of the overthrow of the Taleban. In this respect, the Pashtun nationalist element in this vote reflects the serious concern among the Pakistani Pashtuns about what is happening next door. This reflects, unfortunately, this nexus between proto-nationalism and religious fanaticism among the Pashtuns, the roots of which go centuries back. Indeed, all over the world radical Islamist parties usually become really dangerous when they can appeal to local national sentiments, which subsequently provide them with greatly increased recruiting power and political force.

According to Lieven, a big concern from the U.S. perspective is how far an MMA government of the NWFP will try or be able to frustrate aspects of the hunt for Al-Qaida and for hard-line Taliban elements in the North-West Frontier Province and the tribal areas. On the whole, however, he suggested that this danger may be limited by the following factors. The campaign on the part of Pakistani authorities against Al-Qaida in NWFP in cooperation with the U.S. forces has been conducted by Pakistani federal troops, not the local provincial police. Even if the MMA join the national government in Islamabad, President Musharraf and the military will keep the campaign under their own control. Furthermore, the tribal areas where most of Al-Qaida and Taliban elements are assumed to be hiding out are also administered by the federal government. In addition, a lot of Al-Qaida and Taliban elements, in fact, left Pashtun areas and moved to cities in the rest of Pakistan. So, the domination of the North-West Frontier by the MMA will not necessarily be too much of an obstacle to the war against terrorism.

Lieven also added, however, that there is a risk of this, and there are worrying aspects of the situation. The MMA and hence, the future NWFP provincial government, is dominated by the most radical bit of the MMA, the two factions of Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam (JUI). Even though their leaders are anxious to play this down before the government is formed, they do have a lot of radical, violent and bitterly anti-American elements. In fact, many of Taliban were originally trained in their madrasas.

Nonetheless, Lieven believes that the MMA should be given a chance in power, both in Peshawar and (to a lesser extent) in Islamabad because in the past these parties have proved to be eminently corruptible. Also, the alliance of the MMA might be disintegrate on its own due to various conflicting factions within it, given that prior to the creation of the alliance the leaders of many factions were hostile towards each other. This would be especially the case if pakistani intelligence (the ISI) were to devote as much attention to splitting the MMA as they have to reducing the vote for the PPP. Finally, there is a lot to be said for allowing the Islamists to prove that they too cannot deliver good government, let alone a millennium on earth.

By contrast, Lieven warned against the possibility of a repetition of the "Algerian scenario" whereby the exclusion of the Islamist radicals from power could lead to still further radicalization, the taking up of arms and to bloody violence. Though the likelihood of this scenario in Pakistan as a whole is extremely low, there is a certain degree of risk in Pashtun areas. If the central government were to remove the provincial government in NWFP - especially under real or perceived pressure from the US - radicalization is likely to arise.

Democracy in Pakistan

In discussing prospects for democracy in Pakistan, Lieven pointed to a recent trend in the U.S.-Pakistan relations. There has been a considerable criticism of the U.S. government, wrapped in the anti-terrorism campaign, for not speaking out more loudly in defense of democracy in Pakistan and condoning pre-election process manipulations by General Musharraf. In Lieven's view however this silence is actually very wise, since it is not impossible that in the foreseeable future the US may have to put pressure on the Pakistani military to remove from power democratically-elected provincial governments, if these do indeed harm the war against terrorism. If you think you may have to completely contradict yourself in a few months time, Lieven said, it is probably better to say nothing.

Speaking further about democracy in the country, Lieven echoed a previous Carnegie speaker, Hussain Haqqani, in noting that Pakistan is a curious mixture of South Asia with its relatively strong British democratic, or at least constitutional, traditions and the much more autocratic traditions of Muslim Central Asia and the Middle East. In addition, the British legacy is itself profoundly ambiguous. On the one hand, the British left behind representative institutions and a general belief that democracy is a goal that the country should aspire to. On the other hand, the institutional legacy left behind by the British is profoundly authoritarian: the civil service (descended from the Indian Civil Service of honored memory) and the Army. However, while these institutions are authoritarian, they have also played an absolutely critical role in holding the country together. At the present moment, the Army in Pakistan is the strongest, most disciplined and modern institution in the country. The Army therefore has a natural tendency to dominate the state, and this domination in turn has both positive and negative consequences. Indeed, from this point of view the Army could almost be viewed as similar to the Hindu god Shiva, as both the destroyer and preserver of the state.

The Kashmir Factor

According to Anatol Lieven, the one positive feature of recent developments in the Subcontinent is the election in Indian Kashmir. This led to the unexpected defeat of the Kashmiri national Conference Party, backed by the government in Delhi, at the hands of opposition parties. The new government has declared its intention to pursue peace talks - within the context of the Indian constitution - with some of the armed separatist groups and their political wings. Lieven said that the US has a duty, a right and a strong national interest to encourage such a peace process in Kashmir. Washington should encourage the government of India to support this process, and in addition, to make overtures to the government of Pakistan.

Even the Pakistani media was rocked by the fact that the opposition in Kashmir was able to win the elections. In addition, the more intelligent elements in the Pakistani elites are finally becoming aware that their country cannot win the present arms race with India, and on the contrary is being progressively bankrupted by it. This gives some hope for a renewed political process in Kashmir, which has to involve Pakistan as well if it is to succeed. Lieven pointed out that Indian officials have not ruled out in the long run a solution in Kashmir similar to that in Northern Ireland, with the present "Line of Control" between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir being both formally recognized and simultaneously softened. The US should therefore urge the Indian government to put such proposals on the table as soon as possible.

Summary prepared by Zhanara Nauruzbayeva, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment.