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Pakistan: Group Of Islamist Parties Emerging As Swing Vote

  • Ron Synovitz

A group of radical Islamist parties in Pakistan is emerging as the faction that could control the swing vote behind a new coalition government. RFE/RL examines the political wrangling that continues in Pakistan three weeks after parliamentary elections and why neighboring Afghanistan is registering concern about the rise of the hard-line Islamists in the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal Islamic alliance.

Prague, 31 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The key political groupings in Pakistan are in multiparty talks this week aimed at breaking a deadlock over the composition of the country's first civilian government in three years.

It has been three weeks since Pakistan conducted general elections designed to transfer power from President Pervez Musharraf's military regime to civilian leaders.

No party won enough seats on its own to form a government, and there is still no clear indication about who will govern or even when the parliament will sit.

Musharraf had pledged on election day, 10 October, that power would be transferred at the beginning of November. But authorities in Islamabad now say that the inability of the main parties to reach a coalition agreement means that the deadline will not be met.

In the meantime, a radical Islamic alliance called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA, has been emerging as the faction that could control the swing vote behind a new coalition government.

Political analysts say the six Islamist parties within the MMA appear to be the group best positioned to control the balance of power. The MMA finished third in the elections and is to take 45 seats in the 272-seat legislature.

By comparison, the pro-Musharraf PML-Q finished first with 77 seats, and the opposition Pakistan People's Party finished second with 63 seats.

On paper at least, the election results mean there are several possible groupings that would result in a majority coalition in parliament.

The pro-Musharraf PML-Q and the opposition Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, would control a majority of 139 seats without the Islamists if they could manage to reach agreement. But fierce rivalries appear to be making a deal difficult.

Likewise, rivalries between the Islamists and the secular anti-Musharraf forces have dampened the prospects of political compromise, despite the fact that both groups pledged during the campaign to overturn controversial decrees from Musharraf that have changed the constitution.

Indeed, Musharraf will retain strong presidential powers under the handover plan designed by his military regime. And it is those expanded powers that are causing so much disagreement in the coalition talks.

Through his presidential decrees, Musharraf has given himself the power to nullify the election results with the stroke of a pen by sacking the parliament if he deems it necessary. He also has empowered himself, as the head of a National Security Council, to oversee any government emerging from coalition talks.

MMA leader Maulana Shaha Ahmed Noorani said this week that his Islamist bloc is ready to be part of a new government.

An agreement between the MMA and the PML-Q would result in a majority coalition of 142 parliamentary seats.

But Noorani continues to oppose Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign. On 28 October, he said the MMA will not accept what he called "dictation from foreign countries."

Noorani also insists that Pakistan should become an Islamic state. That, and the MMA's ongoing opposition to many of Musharraf's amendments, makes it unlikely that the Islamists and Musharraf's supporters will join forces without some major compromises.

On 28 October, talks among all of the key groups vying for power were launched at the MMA headquarters.

Along with the MMA, the meetings included the opposition PPP, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the pro-Musharraf PML-Q, and the National Alliance.

But rather than bringing about a breakthrough deal, the meetings have only served to highlight the fact that each potential coalition grouping is burdened by the need for parties to make major compromises on their election platforms, especially on foreign-policy issues and Musharraf's constitution-altering decrees.

As a result of this week's talks, a pro-Musharraf politician has been named to negotiate with the military regime about Musharraf's controversial amendments. That negotiator is PML-Q parliamentary leader Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain.

Some analysts in Islamabad say they see the naming of Hussain as a sign that the Islamists are backing down from their pledges to overturn many of the constitutional changes.

But MMA spokesman Shahid Shamsi says the group still objects to Musharraf's amendments and his plans for the National Security Council.

Shamsi said the MMA wants parliament to be given the chance either to approve or reject Musharraf's amendments. He said the group also wants Musharraf to submit his presidency to a vote of confidence in the parliament.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami party within the MMA, has suggested that a confidence motion on Musharraf's presidency is crucial. "The people were disappointed about this government. They wanted a real change. And [the unexpected support for the MMA on 10 October demonstrates] the urge for real change. They chose the MMA for their future leadership. They have pinned their hopes for real change on the MMA," Ahmed said.

The anti-American election platform of the MMA, as well as its pro-Taliban views, are a cause of concern for Musharraf, who has committed Islamabad's support to the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

Officials in neighboring Afghanistan say they also are concerned about the implications of hard-line Islamists within Pakistan's government.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said in Tokyo this week that the empowerment of radical Islamists will jeopardize stability in Pakistan itself, as well as for other countries in the region. "It is their issue to tackle. It is for Pakistan to address that issue. But even as a neighboring country of Pakistan, we will be concerned about developments in Pakistan," Abdullah said.

Abdullah said authorities in Kabul hope that Musharraf will be able to deal with the Islamists who are set to enter Pakistan's parliament. "These are the people who are the mentors of the Taliban. They are of the same ideology, agenda, and mentality as the Taliban. If we got rid of the Taliban and the Taliban emerge in our neighboring country, that should be a concern. And also, as far as the campaign against Al-Qaeda, it is a concern. These people had formed an organization called the Afghan Defense Council with Al-Qaeda prior to September 11th [with the aim of] defending the Taliban and their programs," Abdullah said.

Abdullah made similar statements about Pakistan's Islamists earlier this month when he was in the United States.