Against the backdrop of fear and horror spread by suicide bombers, a groundswell of hope has emerged in Pakistan after a decisively anti-Musharraf election result. Even as secular opposition parties gained a clear majority in the February 18 parliamentary election, the Pakistani president dismissed any thought of resigning and said he’ll work with the new elected civilian setup. To back him up, the State Department reaffirmed America’s main policy objective in Pakistan for which it deems Musharraf to be indispensable.

“We are going to continue our work with President Musharraf and whatever that new government may be on goals of our national interests,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said at a briefing Tuesday in Washington. America’s main interest, McCormack said, was to ensure that Pakistan continues to play its role in the fight against extremism.

As the death knell tolls for nearly nine years of unruly and unconstitutional rule, both the retired general and Washington remain obtusely adamant that nothing of essence has changed.

Real Elections

Monday’s elections decisively redrew Pakistan’s political landscape. Pakistani voters have dismantled the “Islamic barbarians at the gate” myth built by many an illustrious American expert on Pakistan.

In an unequivocal expression of anger against the Musharraf regime, the Pakistani electorate drubbed the mullahs as well as pro-Musharraf candidates. None of the major parties in the new parliament supports religious extremism or Talibanization. Some, like the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pashtun Awami National Party (ANP), are fiercely secular. The Pakistan Muslim League of former premier Nawaz Sharif, which won the most populous Punjab province, is also a nemesis of militant religious parties. Even in the restive North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), presumed to be the breeding ground of the Taliban, the Pashtun voters emphatically rejected the mullahs’ agenda. With the exception of the Mutaahida Qaumi Movement, which retained its electoral control in Karachi, no other political party chosen by the electorate has a record of using militant tactics.

The election verdict also helps to put the terrorism debate in perspective. Militant extremism is a real and potentially catastrophic problem. It has already taken a heavy toll on Pakistan. Beefing up the Musharraf regime to defeat terrorists has been a cornerstone of America’s post-September 11 foreign policy. The dramatic rise in the ferocity and frequency of acts of terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan is one of the many illustrations of the failure of this policy. The mullahs and Musharraf are not representative of Pakistani public’s opinion or world view; they are part of the extremism problem not the solution.

Agents of Change

Another myth disposed of by the voters is that the alliance of religious parties was the real opposition to Musharraf. Over the years, he carefully cultivated this image in the West that pro-Taliban parties in parliament were a big hurdle in the way of his reform agenda and that, if not for him, the extremists would take over Pakistan.

The real agents of change, however, are not the bearded mullahs but men in black suits and judicial robes. The lawyers’ movement, which first began with the sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March last year, gained further momentum in November after the proclamation of emergency by Musharraf to dismiss the rest of the independent judges. The movement galvanized political activists all over the country and across the party divide. Some of the ousted chief justice’s rallies were bigger than the crowds that the political parties drew in the election campaign.

The December 27 murder of Benazir Bhutto and the return of the former premier, Nawaz Sharif, decisively turned the voters against Musharraf. The military regime’s record on controlling terrorism and improving law and order has been dismal. The death of the country’s most popular politician in the vicinity of army headquarters and the seemingly uncontrollable spree of suicide bombings further fueled public resentment.

Also significant is the role these elections have already played in countering extremism. For five years the mullahs ruled the Northwest Frontier Province under Musharraf. Now they have no political power. The voting pattern shows that people identified the mullahs with Musharraf and both have been resoundingly rejected.

Arduous Agenda

Washington should have reviewed its ill-directed, one-dimensional Pakistan policy long ago. Instead of persisting with the failed Musharraf option, Washington should put all its weight behind the new parliament, which represents the voice of the Pakistani people.

The transition in power, especially given Musharraf’s untenable position as president, will be far from smooth. Negotiations among politicians around the shape and policies of the next government will also be full of pitfalls. Coalition-building always requires difficult compromises. Yet a consensus has emerged in the wake of the voters’ verdict on some key issues. On top of the list is forcing Musharraf out of the presidency and undoing some of the damage he’s recently done. The question of restoring the higher court judges sacked by Musharraf last November on the pretext of emergency will also warrant a quick response from the new parliament.

No civilian government in Pakistan can afford to go soft on terrorism. Unknown suicide bombers and snipers have killed leaders and workers from most of the major parties in the run-up to elections. And no political party can be more effective in dealing with the Pashtun militants in tribal areas than the Pashtun-nationalist ANP. The military operation against militants will be more focused and legitimate if it’s sanctioned by an elected government. So far, the exclusively military-oriented approach to curtail terrorism has not been successful. Complementing it with a political component may yield better results.

A long list of challenges lies ahead for the new civilian government. Many constitutional issues remain unresolved in Pakistan. The role of the army in politics is one of them. It will also have to establish the extent of provincial autonomy for the federating units, a source of much discord and violence in the smaller provinces. Straightening out the web of distortions Musharraf arbitrarily inserted in the constitution will also be a difficult but inescapable task for the elected government.

Meanwhile, Musharraf must not be allowed to use his illegitimate presidency to derail the democratic process. Trying to resuscitate the retired general after his political demise would not win Washington many friends in Pakistan. Democracy is not about elections alone; it is about respecting the verdict of the electorate and giving them regular opportunity to change their government. Pakistani politicians may not have a distinguished record. Most of them do not inspire much faith or confidence. But, unlike Musharraf, they are part of the solution to tame the monster of extremism. It would be in Washington’s own interest to persist with the political process. It will have to let go of Musharraf.

, Najum Mushtaq is a project director at the Pak Institute for Peace Studies and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (