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Opposition Parties Face New Challenges in Pakistan

The party of President Pervez Musharraf suffered a stunning defeat in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections last month. It lost overwhelmingly to two moderate opposition parties – the Pakistan People Party, or PPP, of assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League-N of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Islamist parties also fared badly in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border. But violence in the frontier region has increased and on Sunday, March 2, a powerful suicide bombing – the third in three days – killed 42 people and wounded 58 as tribal leaders met to discuss forming a force to eliminate militants from the area.

In Islamabad, President Musharraf’s allies have rejected opposition demands for his ouster. His fate depends largely on whether the two political parties that won the most seats in February’s election can form a coalition. Pakistani journalist Husain Haqqani, director of Boston University’s Center for International Studies, says that Washington now has little choice except to re-evaluate its long-standing support for President Musharraf, whom it considers America’s most important ally in the war on terror.

Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Haqqani says he expects there will be “a lot of hard thinking in the United States” and a backing away from General Musharraf. Husain Haqqani says he has argued since 9/11 that General Musharraf is America’s “ally of convenience,” but that the Pakistani people’s concerns are as important in the war against terror as the “decisions of generals and intelligence officers sitting in Washington and Islamabad.”

In that vein, Bronwen Maddox observes another positive outcome of the recent elections – namely, that the Islamist parties did as badly as the ruling party. She says the elections were a “rebuff” to the “very fundamentalist, hard-line view,” and in the North West Frontier Province, to many analysts’ surprise, support for “Pashtun separatism” turned out to be stronger than the desire for “religious rule.”

Bronwen Maddox, chief foreign commentator with The Times of London and a specialist on Pakistan, says it is “obvious” that U.S. and British foreign policy needs to be adjusted. She says the elections show pretty clearly that President Musharraf is “finished,” and the United States and Britain need to “step away” from him. Furthermore, America now needs to “look very carefully” at how it can help Pakistan, “not just the single person who happens to be running the government.”

Mr. Haqqani says that, instead of looking at General Musharraf “only through the prism of his cooperation with American intelligence and law enforcement in going after al-Qaida,” Washington needs to take a “holistic look at Pakistan” and understand the needs of its “democratic political parties” and how they diverge from those of the United States.

In that vein, Senator Joseph Biden, who heads the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and who was in Pakistan to monitor the elections, has urged Washington to triple non-military aid to Pakistan. In Rawalpindi, this week (March 3) top U.S. military officer Admiral Michael Muller met with President Musharraf and Army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Kiyani to discuss the war on terrorism.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.