By Ali Imran
Exactly a week after Pakistan‘s May 11 election the country over the weekend witnessed a mix of hopeful and perilous prospects for its 180 million people and the South Asian region, where the United States will maintain high-stakes interests in the foreseeable future.
In a profoundly symbolic development, Pakistan’s influential army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani called on the victorious PLM (N) leader Nawaz Sharif at his residence in Lahore ahead of the former prime minister’s assumption of the office for the record third time.
The meeting represents another step in the ongoing transition of traditional power from military to the civilian institutions. Last year, the Parliament for the first time publicly debated and advised the government on way out of crisis in relations with the United States.
In the port city of Karachi, the country’s commercial hub and a vital supply point for U.S. and NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan, unidentified gunmen killed Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party’s Senior Vice President Zahra Shahid Hussain. The killing has revived fears of further ethno-political unrest in the mega city as the PTI blamed Sindh’s urban ethnic MQM party of involvement in the assassination.
The two developments typify Pakistan’s paradox of hope and predicament, as achievements of its hardworking people and bloody violence perpetrated by extremists go side by side.
But the fact remains that that despite violence bloodying the election trail with murder of more than 100 citizens, the democratic vote with a record 60 percent turnout offers hope in the larger context of Pakistan’s progress.
In the first place, the election has shattered some long-held views about the Pakistani nation in surveys and media reports that even on the eve of election implied that the Pakistanis had no preference for democracy in the face of poor governance under the last democratic coalition administration: they would rather want a strong military-led government or go for something akin to a ham-fisted rule based on militant’s narrow interpretations of Islamic Shariah.
No doubt, the May 11 election by itself will not rid Pakistan of its myriad and deep-running problems overnight. Nor are many of the security and economic challenges like the Taliban militancy, dwindling foreign exchange reserves and budgetary deficits going to disappear altogether as a result of a strong democratically elected government in Islamabad.
What democratic transition in the face of militant violence and economic troubles has done is that it has filled a woefully missing link. It has earned them a sense of empowerment coupled with hope to steer the country on the right course to inclusiveness and shared development.
Yet, the democratic gains would eventually be judged on the scale of Islamabad’s success in dealing with sectarian and ethnic violence, resolving issues in the way of equal rights for all citizens including minorities, emancipation of women in backward areas and addressing the sense of alienation in southwestern Balochistan province, where the voter turnout remained lower than other areas. The province has experienced a low-intensity but a scary insurgency in the last decade.
Despite complaints of rigging at some places, elections have been accepted as being largely fair – no mean achievement in a country, where problems like feudalism, tribal controls and urban ethnic groups hold sway in no-go areas.
Almost all leading parties and the media have accepted the Election Commission as a credible institution, although there have been complaints of rigging and re-polling ordered at some places.
Pakistan has also seen two pillars of democracy developing in the last decade – both as a result of historical process and a long struggle with sacrifices by the civil society. They are a free media and an independent judiciary.
It is in the backdrop of this feisty combination of independent media and judiciary and sharp international focus on Pakistan that the military – traditionally the strongest power player – has stepped back from meddling in the political affairs. However, as an institution, the military’s input on national security matters pertaining to Afghanistan and India remains decisive in the political governments’ policy-making process.
The transfer of power from one civilian (PPP-led coalition) government to the other has also made it clear that there cannot be a repeat of a la Musharraf 2007 imposition of emergency. The newfound power that the political parties and civil society have wrested from several, if not all, traditional power wielders appears to be irreversible.
The message from the lawyers’ movement of 2007, emergence of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf with robust participation of previously fence-sitting upper middle class and back-to-back nationwide elections, even as the Taliban continued to play havoc with lives of people in the last about six years, is crystal clear: the days of absolute dictatorship in violation of the Constitution are gone.
Just as the democratic gains have offset bleak predictions about the country’s future course, the new PML-N president Nawaz Sharif-led government will have to find a viable economic way forward, one that at least sets the nuclear-armed country on the path of a healthy growth rate. Islamabad will need the help of friends like the United States, China, Saudi Arabia and other members of the international community to attract back investment and enhance world confidence in Pakistan’s economic direction.
US, Pakistani flags picture
Sharif, who has sounded pragmatic in his approach to both foreign policy and some domestic issues since his big win, must also continue efforts toward women’s empowerment, democratic rights of minorities, provincial autonomy under landmark 18th Constitutional Amendment and universal access to education and health.
His avowed commitment to expand trade with longtime rival India and quest for peaceful resolution to decades-old disputes give rise to hopes that militants would not be allowed to use Kashmir as a lightning rod.
Simultaneously, new leaders in charge of Islamabad will have to deal with terrorism threat and al-Qaeda remnants hiding along the restive Pakistan-Afghanistan border. More than a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and trillions of dollars spent on Afghanistan and Iraq wars as well as Pakistani actions and U.S. drone warfare in the tribal areas it has been amply demonstrated that bullets and unmanned predators alone are not going to flush out militancy.
Ultimately, it is the sense of empowerment that the people now have from their tremendous participation and trust in the democratic system that would defeat the militant mindset of those who were armed, trained and financed by Pakistan and other Washington-led allies.
And just as the end of Cold War with the defeat of Soviet Union in Afghanistan was not the work of one nation, stamping out militancy and terrorism in the region would require concerted work that emphasizes all dimensions including political, economic and law enforcement.
Washington has indicated that Secretary of State John Kerry would visit Pakistan soon after the formation of a new democratic government in Islamabad.
For its part, the Obama Administration, which has been supportive of Pakistan’s democratic process, will have to be patient as it deals with different power centers in the country, to conclude its 12-year-old war in neighboring Afghanistan and craft a regional policy that ensures a modicum of stability in post-2014 Afghanistan.
Such a U.S. approach has become all the more important as cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s PTI party appears set to govern the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which provides gateway for supplies into landlocked Afghanistan and will also be vital to drawdown of military equipment.
Also crucial will be the policies the PML-N-led government in Islamabad and the PTI-led coalition in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa practice in dealing with Taliban and sectarian militancy. Some experts argue the two parties’ preference for dialogue with militants might ratchet down incidents of violence and bring stability.
The continuing advancement of democratic idea in Pakistan and the measure of success it achieves in blunting powers of undemocratic forces could have resonance vis-à-vis unfinished Arab Spring movements, as people carry on their struggles against forces of status quo in Syria and elsewhere.
A successful democratic system in Pakistan may also have relevance for neighboring Iran, where people have been denied some basic rights including freedom of expression and independence of the media.
The democratic milestone in Pakistan – that has made it the fifth largest democracy world – has reinforced the moot point – so critical to constructing a Middle East peace narrative – that in a politically participatory climate, Islam and democracy are not only compatible but also complementary in the struggle for rights of people and development of Muslim societies.
With an independent judiciary, a neutral election commission, a vibrant media watchdog, a functioning Parliament, continued strong showing by large secular political parties, Pakistan has some fundamentally strong elements in place for progress towards a practical manifestation of the argument that political Islam and democracy are inherently conciliatory, not contradictory, as far as rights of the people are concerned. Turkey, perhaps, is the only major country in the Muslim world, which currently has a successfully functioning democracy with some key institutions working freely.