Pakistan's voters have taken both the government and the banned political parties by surprise. In a show of independence, voters turned out for Monday's election in unexpectedly large numbers and, with few exceptions, repudiated both the government and the opposition.
The only person in the political establishment who appears strengthened is the general-cum-President, Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Although he barred political parties from contesting and held the elections under martial law's watchful eye, he did give this politically conscious nation of 84 million its first parliamentary election in nearly eight years of military rule.
The turnout -- an estimated 30 percent in the cities and more than 50 percent in the countryside -- clearly shows that Pakistanis were eager to vote.
The voters have turned the political status quo upside down. They ignored the call of the 11 major parties -- lumped together in an eclectic alliance called the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy -- to boycott the polls.
The call was stifled almost from its inception when hundreds of party leaders and workers were summarily placed under arrest.
Their verdict was equally cheerless for the government, when all but one of General Zia's ministers and most of his advisers, mayors, and close associates went down to defeat.
Perhaps one of the most surprising upsets was the almost total rejection of the militant Islamic fundamentalists, who champion an orthodox concept of Islam. They captured only four of the 62 seats they contested.
So the men and the handful of women who will come to Islamabad for the opening of parliament on March 23 are by and large untested, younger than the previous parliament, and beholden to no one but the voters who have sent them here.
They still can not be certain, however, of the powers of the assembly in which they will sit.
President Zia has still not announced the constitutional amendments -- already promulgated and to be made public in a ``few days'' -- that will define the division of powers between the President and his appointed premier. The amendments will also establish a National Security Council that will give the Army a voice in the country's affairs.
At an election eve press conference, Zia deftly evaded all questions on what the future held. He refused to give a target date for the lifting of martial law.
He said only that it would be lifted in stages, when the suspended Constitution was fully restored. That process, he said, would take ``a few months.'' But he made it clear, as the Army chief of staff, that he would ``retain the martial-law umbrella'' for as long as he saw fit.
``He may be forced to lift it sooner than he expects,'' said Mushahid Hussain, the editor of the prestigious daily newspaper Muslim. ``These elections were credible elections, honest and fair, and there are some good people coming to parliament. It won't be a rubber stamp.
``I think he'll have to come to an arrangement with parliament on the lifting of martial law. He now has the confidence behind him of a large voter turnout, and, even though it wasn't quite what the generals wanted, with nearly the entire government going down to defeat, I suspect they'll go ahead, following the Turkish model.
``There was definitely a significant message in this vote. The people have solidly repudiated Islamic fundamentalism and a government of martial law.''
For the country's traditional political leadership, despite their efforts to project a brave, stolid face, there were private acknowledgements from some, that the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) had made a tactical error by refusing to participate in the elections as independent candidates.
Perhaps this is the final irony and tragedy of Pakistan's third national election since independence 37 years ago. In a series of previously undisclosed secret and high-level meetings between Zia and his intermediaries and some leaders of the MRD, the two camps came very close to agreement that the politicians would participate in the polls. Then, at the 11th hour, everything fell apart.
According to a wide range of sources -- those close to Zia, politicians, and Western diplomats -- the contacts began in November and continued through Jan. 21. Zia had two personal meetings, the last on Jan. 18, with Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, the leading figure inside Pakistan of the powerful Pakistan People's Party. Mr. Jatoi has publicly denied that the meetings took place.
Jatoi's phone has now been disconnected and he is under house arrest, but he confirmed in an earlier interview that he had been offered the prime ministership as recently as December.
He was a logical candidate because he is from Sind Province. The post will almost certainly be given to a representative of that volatile province. During the summer of 1983, a two-month rebellion there presented General Zia with the greatest single challenge to his military regime.
The Pakistan People's Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the executed premier, is led by his firey, articulate daughter, Benazir, who is in exile in Europe. Zia's political strategy has always been to split the broadly based party and undermine Mr. Bhutto's heirs by wooing the party's moderate members away from what he considers its ``hard-line rump.'' The strategy appears to have nearly worked.
A surprise somersault by the government, between Jan. 12 and 15, was a direct result of Zia's contacts with the political establishment, according to highly placed sources.
On Jan. 15, he withdrew an earlier ban on the politicians participating in the elections as independents; he agreed privately to reopen the candidate lists for three days. He reportedly briefed Jatoi on the constitutional amendments and the division of powers between the President and premier, though he did not show the would-be prime minister the text of the amendment.
Armed with unspecified government commitments, Jatoi went to the Abbottabad residence of the retired chief of the Air Force, Asghar Khan, for a meeting of the MRD leaders on Jan. 19.
The leaders of the more powerful MRD parties were reportedly willing to consider the government's terms. It was the smaller parties, with few electoral prospects, which, according to one leader present, ``held the political alliance to ransom, and we couldn't break ranks.''
Thus, the message sent to Zia after the Abbottabad meeting was that the political leaders needed more time. They wanted a dialogue with the government and were not prepared to accept the assurances of Jatoi. They wanted a subsequent MRD meeting to be permitted -- political meetings are banned in Pakistan -- at the end of February in the Punjabi capital of Lahore.
According to sources close to Zia, the political leaders also wanted the elections to be postponed for five or six months, so that they could return to the hustings for the first time in eight years.
Zia and his generals were not prepared to make such a concession.
So the elections were held without the politicians, and both they and Zia lost. For better or worse, a new political order could well emerge in Islamabad.