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The electorate woke up to an altogether different general election in October 2002. Democracy was repackaged and rebranded.

Of course, it was the army that hit the reset button. All the roads that it had laid, within the previous system, to justify its frequent interventions were finally blocked by the PML-N: the party had conquered the president house, the parliament and the provinces. It had succeeded in blunting resistance from the judiciary but then it tried to take on the bull by the horns.

The dénouement came in October 1999. Pakistan returned to square one and the army reasserted its claim. But this time, it was accompanied by a gift-wrapped bag of goodies. The number of seats in the National Assembly was raised from 207 to 272, and likewise in provincial legislatures, necessitating a redrawing of electoral constituencies which in turn required a fresh listing of voters. That had been overdue anyway and it became a must after the voters’ age requirement was lowered from 21 to 18 years. The decision injected a five million into the electorate.

The surprise gift was the restoration of the old joint electorate system giving non-Muslim minorities cause to celebrate. The separate electorate system introduced by Gen Ziaul Haq in the 1985 elections had allowed the electorate to vote for only candidates of the same faith as their own. This had thrown non-Muslim minorities out of the political mainstream.

The 20 seats reserved for women by the 1973 Constitution were time-barred and had expired after the 1988 elections. The electoral reforms added a generous 60 reserved seats for women into the National Assembly.

A new procedure for election to the reserved seats was introduced whereby parties are allocated a quota of seats in proportion to the general seats that they had won. Thus a party winning half of the 272 general seats is allocated 30 seats reserved for women and five for minorities.

The banning of posters, banners and rallies had stolen the shine from the campaigns of the past two elections. Such rules were now waived, restoring the festivity. But these facelifts did little in lifting the soul of the election. The turnout remained low in the absence of the two main leaders.

Despite all of these advantages, the general elections 2002 told the emperor in unequivocal words that he was naked. The ‘king’s party’ — the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam — failed to muster enough numbers to form government and the president bent rules allowing independents to join parties after being elected but that was not enough. He then withheld the restoration of a clause of the 14th amendment to the Constitution that had strictly forbidden the parliamentarians from floor-crossing. This legitimised the horse-trading. Ten of the PPP’s elected members formed the Patriot group and supported Gen Musharraf. Three of the PML-N also defected and Amir Muqam of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) joined the PML-Q too.

But even with these ruthless manoeuvres the PML-Q formed government only with the thinnest possible majority of just one vote. It made evident the limits to the power of the most powerful.

The PPP had bounced back from the massive loss it suffered in 1997. Its vote bank rose to the previous level of 7.5 million though the number now seemed smaller in relative terms as the overall size of the electorate was beefed up from 54 to 72 million. The PML-N got just 15 seats though the party managed to poll an impressive 3.4 million votes, less than half of what it had at its peak in 1997.

The PPP was the largest opposition party in the parliament second only to the MMA. The triumph of the alliance of right-wing religious parties was probably the biggest surprise of the 2002 elections. For the first time in the country’s history, religious parties were able to form a government in a province besides being an opposition in the lower house with substantial strength.

Their victory came in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent US-led military campaign in Afghanistan. Pakistan chose to side with the US but also attempted to limit its involvement. Its international commitments, financial obligations and ideological moorings, as defined by the MMA’s electoral success, tugged it into different directions. Once again, geopolitics cast a long shadow over the local democratic discourse.

The new electoral laws had made it mandatory for candidates to be graduates or possess higher qualifications. This attempt to create an erudite parliament disqualified a number of seasoned politicians, besides triggering two controversies. One, a number of candidates obtained forged degrees; the matter landed in courts upon being challenged by opponents. The issue continues to haunt politics.

Two, the madrassah-qualified politicians faced the issue of the equivalence of their degrees to university graduation. The court case regarding the latter remained pending all through the tenure of the 2002 parliament. There were around 68 parliamentarians with madrassah certificates, mostly belonging to the opposition MMA. Gen Musharraf used this as a lever to force the MMA to support him at critical junctures.

Despite the opposition’s persistent clamouring, the president did not give up his military office; he was aware of the real source of his power and the fact that he could only keep democracy on a tight leash while clad in a military uniform.