February 20, 2008 -- SOME of the world's deadli est terrorists vowed to prevent it; powerful mili tary figures plotted to rig its outcome. Yet Pakistan's election went off with minimum violence, producing results whose legitimacy no one can contest.
The biggest winner is the Pakistani people - who, given the chance, manifested their attachment to pluralism and the rule of law. By turning up in millions to vote, they confounded both the terrorists and the shadowy security agencies.
Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies did all they could to disrupt things, killing some 300 candidates, election officers and party activists. Their sinister slogan "From Box to Box" - i.e., anyone who cast a vote into the ballot box could end up in a coffin - was posted or scribbled on many walls. The terrorists also destroyed at least 12 polling stations and stole several dozen ballot boxes.
Still, they failed. And their political allies did no better.
The Unified Assembly for Action (MMA), a coalition of Islamists, saw its share of the vote drop from almost 11 percent in the last general election five years ago to around 3 percent. It lost control of the only one of Pakistan's four provinces that it governed, and all its main leaders lost their seats. In the provincial assembly of Sindh, the MMA won no seats.
A Shiite group, heavily financed by Iran's Islamic Republic, suffered an even bigger rout. If the latest results hold, it will end up with 1 percent of the vote.
The politicians linked with the military and security agencies also lost, if not as heavily. Their chief party, the Pakistan Muslim League, lost almost two-thirds of its seats and control of the national parliament and the three provincial assemblies that it had dominated for years.
The message of this election is clear: The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis reject both military rule and its political twin of Islamism.
Those twins started dominating Pakistani politics in the 1970s, when Gen. Zia ul-Haq overthrew Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a military coup. Unable to build a political base, the general played the Islamist card - reducing religion to a mere apologia for his corrupt and brutal regime. The Islamists in turn got a share in political power - and in the looting of the national economy.
With Monday's general election, Pakistan returns to where it was in 1977, before Zia's coup. Two mainstream movements, the Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of the Bhuttos, have returned as chief players in national and provincial politics.
The right-of-center PLMN is likely to form the next provincial government in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province. The left-of-center PPP will control Sindh and likely lead coalition governments in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province.
There is much talk of the two forming a government of national unity - a grand coalition. Attractive as the idea is, it may be unwise. With the main parties in government together, the allies of the military and the Islamist remnants could cast themselves as the opposition - peddling the message that non-military, non-religious parties can't solve Pakistan's social, economic and political problems.
The best outcome would be for the two mainstream parties, perhaps associated with a bloc of independents, to fill out the entire political spectrum. One party could become the kernel of a coalition government, while the other leads the parliamentary opposition. This model has worked in neighboring India for more than half a century. There's no reason why it shouldn't work in Pakistan.
The PMLN and the PPP have different historical trajectories, visions and programs. These should not be blurred through a power-sharing scheme that may be unsustainable. Better for both, and for Pakistan, if each retains its distinct identity - offering voters a clear choice.
The formation of a people-based government was always a basic condition for winning the war against terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The fulfillment of that condition means a strategic turning of the tide against the terrorists - but not guaranteed victory.
For that reason, the election winners would be unwise to waste energy settling personal scores with President Pervez Musharraf. If anything, they owe him a debt of gratitude: He's the first Pakistani military ruler to organize free and fair elections and accept results that don't favor his camp.
Despite a persistent campaign of vilification against him, Musharraf enjoys a capital of trust that can serve what is, in effect, a new system of government based on separation of powers. He has always claimed his hope for Pakistan to adopt the Turkish political model - wherein the armed forces act as ultimate guardians of the Constitution, preventing dictatorship in the name of either nationalism or faith.
The new government must come out with a credible program of social reform and economic development to give people hope - and also rid the security services of rogue elements that pursue personal agendas in the name of Islam.
The outgoing government, needing Islamist support to compensate for its lack of a genuine popular base, largely restricted itself to shadow-boxing against the terrorists, especially near the Afghan border. The new government will have no need of such tactics. It should create a popular front against terror to meet a challenge that threatens its unity.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's friends - notably the United States, the European Union and the moderate Muslim nations - must dig deeper in their pockets to help both economically and militarily.