Judging what the people of Pakistan “really want” is a tough job. Optimists generally point out that Islamist parties get only a small percentage of the vote. That’s true, but it’s also too simple. Nawaz Sharif is a mainstream politician with strong public support. He himself is “secular,” but was also a protege of the Islamist-leaning General Zia, and has long been willing to ally with Islamists. Sharif was even reportedly aided by Osama bin Laden, and came close to instituting Sharia law when he was in power. Sharif was a serious potential power-holder before Bhutto’s assassination, and other than Musharraf, is the only major politician left standing today. Giving power to Sharif, or a Sharif-based coalition, is one way in which elections could lead to a significant degree of power for Islamists.
Sharif’s defenders point out that, whatever he may say publicly, he is in fact a savvy secularist who was willing to work with the Clinton administration against terrorists. It’s true that Sharif is perfectly capable of playing the habitual double game of Pakistani politicians. But in the current climate, the source of Sharif’s power lies in appeals to anti-Americanism. Already in the election campaign, Sharif has bragged about ignoring repeated phone calls from President Clinton, when Clinton was concerned about the development of Pakistan’s atomic bomb. I refused five phone calls from Clinton, boasts Sharif, while Musharraf buckled to Bush post-9/11 after just one phone call. That’s how this “democrat” asks for votes. (For more on Sharif’s bogus democratic record, and on the weak nature of Pakistan’s democratic “tradition,” see “Democracy Myth.”)
The question of how far democracy will help the Islamists (as by bringing in a mainstream ally like Sharif) is only one side of the problem. As Sharif’s anti-American election appeal makes clear, whether they would openly endorse suicide bombings or not, many Pakistanis are opposed to America’s war on terror. They may not want to be directly ruled by Osama bin Laden, but they respect bin Laden because he stands up to the United States. Even if Pakistanis wouldn’t vote for an overtly Islamist candidate, the public is largely opposed to any military campaign against the Taliban in the country’s tribal Northwest.
Pakistanis aren’t against Musharraf because he’s a dictator so much as they’re against him because he allows the Americans to push Pakistan’s army into a fight with the jihadists. After Musharraf’s first coup, few Pakistanis mourned for “democracy.” They were just as tired of corrupt and incompetent rule by “democratic” leaders like Bhutto and Sharif in 1999 as they are fed up with Musharraf today. It’s not democracy, or the lack thereof, that drives the bulk of the people for or against a particular regime, but the general deterioration of conditions in Pakistan.
Polling data may show support for Bhutto, but it’s not because of her strong anti-terror position, but in spite of it. Bhutto’s support comes partly from her regional allies, but also from those who remember the populist quasi-socialist policies of her father. The economic dreams of Pakistan’s poor are with Bhutto. Her supporters are poor people who haven’t benefitted from the growth of Pakistan’s economy under Musharraf. They’re attracted to Bhutto’s socialism, not to hopes for liberal democracy or military assaults against the Taliban. Bhutto’s sophisticated backers always billed her to Americans as someone who could convince her reluctant constituency to accept a war on terror that the Pakistani people really don’t want.
So it’s a mistake to read support for Bhutto as support for the war on terror. I don’t think she could have turned public opinion around on that anyway, and I think it’s even less likely that her PPP successor could do so. Americans may see Bhutto’s assassination as final proof that Pakistanis ought to support the war on terror. But Pakistan’s “democratic” politicians are more interested in using the assassination to turn the public against Musharraf.
Another thing that gets missed is that even (or especially) many of Bhutto’s most Westernized and secular supporters despise the war on terror. The question is less how many Pakistanis support the Taliban than how many support America’s war on terror within Pakistan. The answer is, not very many. And this is a big part of why an illiberal and purely electoral democracy in Pakistan is a problem.
Right now we face the very real prospect of an electoral coalition in which Sharif and allied Islamists hold significant power. Yes, Sharif would still run a double game against terrorism to mollify the Americans, but it would be vastly more tenuous than even Musharraf’s game is now, and would constantly threaten to collapse into anti-American demagoguery (now a key source of Sharif’s popular appeal). Even an electoral victory by a Bhutto successor could mean trouble. Bhutto’s supporters do not favor the war on terror, and could in any case fall into conflicts with the army that would lead to further chaos. And remember, Bhutto and Sharif alternated in power, and their respective parties and coalitions would surely alternate again. Disenchantment with a regime ruled by a Bhutto successor would lead to victory in the next election for an even more virulently anti-American Sharif-Islamist coalition. This is the future of “democracy” in Pakistan.