Pakistan: Real change or plus ça change?

Good news is rarely reported from Pakistan - but, over this past weekend, the country did reach a milestone

Nawaz Sharif: back with a bang
Ghaffar Hussain
On 14 May 2013 08:41

Good news is rarely reported from Pakistan. The country only seems to make headlines when terrorists decide to launch an outrageous attack or a beleaguered member of a minority group is lynched for blasphemy. In fact, things have been so bad that one would be forgiven for thinking Prince Philip had been hired to do its PR.

And yet, over this past weekend, Pakistan did reach a milestone. For the first time in the country's history, a democratically elected government completed a term in office and power was handed over to a new, democratically-elected government. In spite of Taliban threats, voter turnout was over 60 percent; a record number of women and young people voted and the streets of some cities had a carnival- like atmosphere. In short, it can be said that democracy has finally taken root in Pakistan.

But in spite of this good news, we are still talking about Pakistan here; imperfections are expected and apparent. The run up to the elections was marred by violence directed at secular parties that had openly condemned the Taliban; allegations of vote-rigging were ubiquitous; many women were prevented from voting in rural areas. Nevertheless, what was achieved is worth celebrating.

The outcome of the election also surprised many. The incumbent Pakistan People's Party (PPP), led by the husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, suffered an embarrassing defeat and managed to secure only 35 of the 272 seats up for grabs in National Assembly. Imran Khan's highly fancied Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), much to the disappointment of its overly expectant followers, managed to secure 37 seats. Although the PTI faithful greeted this news with dismay, the result is actually quite an impressive feat considering it is a relatively new player and only had one seat prior to this election.

The resounding winner of the election though, with 130 seats, was the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), led by the former two-time Prime Minister of Pakistan, and Del-boy look-alike, Nawaz Sharif. Pakistani elections are mainly decided in the Punjab, which is by far the largest province in the country. And Sharif, who returned from exile in Saudi Arabia after being ousted in a Musharaf-led military coup in 1999, has spent the past five years diligently building up a support base and galvanising the party faithful in this region.

Previous Sharif-led governments have been characterised by incompetence and political corruption.  The man himself is regarded as impulsive and often driven by emotion, even by close allies. He is also religiously conservative, reluctant to speak out against extremists and very cosy with the Saudis.

But, with the PPP failing to inspire confidence and Imran Khan's PTI viewed as lacking in experience and political maturity, the people of Pakistan have decided on a safe bet. Sharif, along with his brother Shahbaz, is seen as a competent technocrat and should be able to stabilise the economy and deal with other pressing issues such as the chronic power shortages and poor transport. After all, they are both very successful business men and have significant experience in Pakistani politics.

The world outside Pakistan will be thinking about the impact this election result will have on Pakistani foreign policy. Sharif campaigned on an anti-War on Terror ticket, which may just be convenient for the international community and the US. ISAF forces are set to leave Afghanistan next year and the Obama administration is stepping up its pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region, making it less interested in South Asia. 

This is not to say Sharif is anti-US, nor anti-India for that matter. He is a realist and will do what he thinks is in the best interests of Pakistan. For these reasons, we can expect to see relations between India and Pakistan improve during his tenure, and for progress to be made on the Kashmir issue. Sharif's ancestors are from the Kashmir region and he is wise enough to appreciate the benefits of peace for Pakistan and its ailing economy.

But friendly relations with India and the outside world do not suit all inside Pakistan. In particular, the Pakistani military, that justifies its huge share of the annual budget by pointing to hostilities with India, would not be best pleased. In fact, tensions between the powerful military and the civilian administration could rise in the next few years, especially since there is colourful history between the Sharif and top military brass – the former has, in the past, attempted to tame the latter’s maverick-like behaviour.

Sharif may approach these familiar issues with a degree of confidence but he will be dealing with a very different Pakistan from the one he left in 1999. There is now a government in place in neighbouring Afghanistan which Pakistan has yet to develop a coherent policy towards. Jihadi terrorism is rampant across the country and large scale sectarian violence is a daily occurrence. Pakistan now has a very lively and active media and young Pakistanis have an efficacious social media presence. All of these things will be new to Sharif and it is not clear how he will deal with them.

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, Imran Khan's PTI has smashed the PPP-PML-N monopoly on Pakistani politics and the former cricketer, with his anti-corruption focus, could turn out to be a formidable opposition leader. The PTI factor, alongside a more confident and assertive judiciary, as well as a power hungry religious establishment, means Sharif will be operating in a different political landscape from the one he is used to.

Pakistan's unsteady journey towards democracy will remain just that: unsteady. But optimism is in the air and I won't look to spoil the feelings of elation and achievement too much. After all, it is not every day that we can talk about Pakistan with a degree of optimism, so let’s enjoy it whilst it lasts.

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