A Nest of Potential Assassins Eye Each Other in Pakistan

General Mushtaq Baig, was killed along with eight others by a suicide attack in the garrison town of Rawalpindi

Although the western powers are breathing a sigh of relief over what appears to have been a relatively free and clean election in Pakistan last week, which delivered a decisive drubbing for the strongman Pervez Musharraf, it didn’t take long for the men of violence to re-appear. With the victors still to decide who’ll formally run the country, Pakistan’s military top medic, General Mushtaq Baig, was killed along with eight others by a suicide attack in the garrison town of Rawalpindi.

The warm inner glow of the post-election is quickly fading to the realization that the election probably has created a mess that will have to be cleaned up in any time between a year and 18 months from now. Keep an eye on the military, which has run this country for 34 of its 60 years of existence.

But while the election is a democratic step forward in a country too often denied it, it underlines how limited and how rancid Pakistani politics is. The winners are the parties of Benazir Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. They are well known to Pakistanis – and to each other. They didn’t win the election on policy, or the persuasive power of new ideas. They won the poll mostly because they weren’t Pervez Musharraf, the hated career general and the US’s best friend in Washington’s War on Terror.

What Pakistanis have done is to have voted into an executive vacuum, with no idea who will formally be running their country. This was a parliamentary poll and Pakistan has adopted an unwieldy co-habitation system. The five most important political figures in the country weren’t candidates. President Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup d’etat against an incompetent Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf claimed at the time was trying to kill him, didn’t run. Election winner Nawaz couldn’t stand either because he’s a convicted felon, of conspiracy to assassinate Musharraf. Zardari was also charged with corruption. Benazir’s son Bilawal, whom she posthumously anointed her party’s co-chairman with her husband Zardari, was at 19 too young to stand.

Altaf Hussain, the Karachi power broker who runs the city from London by telephone and loudspeaker broadcasting his calls, has hundreds of criminal cases pending against him and doesn’t dare return.

Pakistan’s cleanest politician is probably its most ineffective one, the former cricketer Imran Khan. He only gets Western media airtime because he was once a famous sportsman, and has a glamorous English ex-wife Jemima. Imran has little relevance to contemporary Pakistani politics.

This election heralds a fresh start with craggy old faces. Zardari and Nawaz represent two feudal dynasties, Zardari from Sindh in Pakistan’s south and Nawaz from Punjab, the dominant north-central province. Both dynasties have twice been in power before, when Pakistan was at its most corrupt. The Bhutto dynasty financed the Taleban, Nawaz built Islam's first atomic bomb. All four of their terms were cut short by military coup or constitutional removal by the judiciary or the presidency on grounds of corruption. Then there is the matter of Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged in 1979 for allegedly authorizing the murder of a political opponent. The man who ordered him hanged, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, was mysteriously blown up in 1988 along with several generals and the US ambassador in an as-yet unsolved air crash.

The wealthy Zardari, ‘Mr 10 percent’ as he is known to Pakistanis, has never been prime minister – the closest he got was Environment Minister in his late wife’s first administration. But he did spend 11 years in jail on charges from corruption to murder, first imprisoned by Nawaz Sharif and happily kept inside by Musharraf.

Having ousted the ‘King’s Party’- the Musharraf-friendly government -now Zardari is the kingmaker, if not the king himself, because his late wife’s Pakistan People’s Party got the most votes. Now he has to co-exist with Nawaz Sharif, who jailed him, to form Pakistan’s first ever national unity government and together perhaps oust the man who jailed them both, Musharraf. But Musharraf has Pakistan’s powerful military and the US on his side, and still has four years constitutionally to run as President. The support of two-thirds of the parliament is needed to start impeachment proceedings against him, votes Zardari-Nawaz don’t quite have, votes the US hopes they'll never get.

Islamabad seethes with intrigues and long memories of how venal political retribution can be here. Musharraf’s ousted parliamentary leader Sheik Rasheed knows it — he exiled himself to Spain on election day.

It all reduces to who hates whom less. But so far everyone – suicide bombers to the contrary —is being nice to each other. This is particularly unusual in Pakistani politics. There has never been a peaceful transfer of power in Pakistan between two elected governments. In a country where people identify themselves by their region first, then as Pakistanis, the military sees itself as the custodian of the moderate unitary state, not to mention its nuclear weapons pointed at India.

Pakistan is scarred deeply with a violent vengeful past. For all of this to work, this shiny new Pakistan will need forgiveness, to have not just one Mandela amongst its leaders’ ranks, but a score of them. But as the people of Pindi know, and the family of General Baig, there are no Mandelas in Pakistan. All it has is hope.

Eric Ellis is Southeast Asia correspondent for Fortune Magazine, and was an official monitor of last week’s Pakistan election. A different version of this story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.