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Page last updated at 13:35 GMT, Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The end of the West's 'Musharraf policy'?

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Perhaps the most encouraging feature of the Pakistan elections from the US, British and other Western points of view was the success of secular parties in resisting the spread of pro-Taleban influence.

Votes being counted in Pakistan
The election cycle has surprised the outside world

Those governments would agree with a commentator in the Pakistan Daily Times who said: "The return of the liberal and secular ANP [Awami National Party] and PPP [Pakistan People's Party] to North West Frontier Province heralds a promise of peace and stability denied to the hapless province during the reign of the MMA [religious parties].

"It is the rise of liberal democracy and not the ouster of President Musharraf per se by any confrontationist means that will help solve the problem of religious extremism in Pakistan."

It is ironic that the democracy called for by the US, Britain and others has now very much isolated the man they supported before, President Musharraf.

Divided results

But they would say that that is the nature of an election and that it must be welcomed. The system is bigger than one man.

The US called the election a "step toward the full restoration of democracy".

ANP supporters in NWFP
The West should take heart from the poll successes of secular parties

But one can expect that they will place less reliance on President Musharraf than before without wanting him to retire from the scene.

The Wall Street Journal summed up this shift in US policy away from supporting one man: "For the Bush administration, Monday's election means that it can continue [the] transition from what is often described as a "Musharraf policy" to a broader Pakistani one.

"It was never in America's interests to humiliate or isolate the Pakistani leader... But US interests in Pakistan are best served by cultivating democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society with its own interests in fighting Islamic extremism."

Disastrous

Much remains uncertain, given the divided results. A great deal depends on who will become prime minister and the eventual fate of Pervez Musharraf.

What can be said that is that, although the British and American hopes of getting Benazir Bhutto back into office failed because of a disastrous lapse of security, Pakistan seems to have come through the election cycle as it sometimes has in the past, by surprising the outside world and perhaps itself by sticking to the process.

The army under its new commander, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, has stayed in the background.

The question now is how far the army will pursue its anti-Taleban operations in the tribal areas along the Afghan frontier. That work is seen as a vital by Nato governments supporting Afghan President Karzai. How much will it depend on the atttiude of a new Pakistani government?

Overall, the results must give hope to governments worried about the influence of Islamic extremism inside the country, about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons [though the US is quite confident about that] and about the ability of the Pakistani government to combat the Taleban elements operating across into Afghanistan.

But as so often in Pakistan's history, the stability of one moment is not necessarily a pointer to the long-term future.


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