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Pakistan Elections Could Mark Historic Transfer of Power

Election sign for Imran Khan who heads the party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. The former cricket champion-turned-politician casts himself as an anti-corruption crusader. Photo by Daniel Sagalyn.

If everything goes according to plan, Pakistan’s election on May 11 will be the first time in the country’s history that there will be a peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to the next.

The election is critical in the democratic transition of Pakistan, according to Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, a non-profit organization that focuses on elections, democracy and parliament. Mehboob said in the past “either a government was sacked with overt or covert support of the military and the elections took place. Or it was a military government which conducted the election.” In this case, he stressed, there will be a handover of power from one group of civilians to another. A successful election will “give Pakistanis confidence they can pick their leaders, it will give them a tremendous amount of respect,” Mehboob said. “They will focus more on governance and less on politics.”

The democracy scholar said this was happening at a time when democratic institutions were the strongest they have ever been in Pakistan’s 66-year history.

“We think that it is the finest period for democracy in Pakistan in a relative sense,” Mehboob said. “Pakistan never had such an independent and assertive judiciary as we have today.” In addition, there is a vibrant and diverse media which is independent of any government influence, he said.

Finally, political parties are able to operate freely, without government influence, according to Mehboob. “There used to be times when people who opted to be in [the] opposition were put under a lot of pressure, one way or the other, through police, through coercion, and they were made to switch sides, but today there is no such thing,” he said. “The opposition is free.”

“I think we’ll see little military interference in these elections,” according to Andrew Wilder, the director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. However, if the elections result in a hung parliament, then the Pakistani military “may play some role in facilitating coalition-building efforts in order to protect some of their institutional interests,” said Wilder in an email to the NewsHour. “They genuinely don’t want a completely dysfunctional government as they recognize there’s now an urgent need for a government that can address the economic crisis.”

Wilder noted that sometimes in the past the Pakistani military has “wanted a relatively weak and dysfunctional government so that the politicians would get discredited and the military” would look good. In times like this, the Pakistani military “could continue to retain real power behind the facade of democratically elected politicians,” he said.

While democratic institutions have been gaining strength over the past five years, nevertheless “governance has been quite poor,” stressed Mehboob. “Service delivery has been poor, management of state institutions have been quite poor. Inflation, unemployment, state enterprises management, corruption” at the federal and provincial level all “get very low marks in governance.”

“It has been a kind of mixed bag,” Hasan Askari Rizvi of Punjab University said, referring to the last five years of democratic rule in Pakistan. He notes there have been several procedural successes, such as the transferring of power from the presidency to the parliament. During previous dictatorial regimes, the presidency amassed great power and now that has been undone, says Rizvi. Power and autonomy, according to Rizvi, has been shifted to the provinces, giving them more ability for self-rule.

Another positive development, according to Rizvi, is that Pakistani military leaders now consult with their civilian counterparts more often than they used to in the past. “As far as civil-military relations are concerned, the military has definitely yielded some space to the civilian government,” Rizvi said. “But when it comes to their [the military’s] primary interests, or what they view as their primary interests, whether it’s anything related to terrorism, anything relating to their professional interests, anything relating to their corporate interests, they put their foot down.”

But Rizvi says the Pakistani military is still the most powerful institution in the country and that “the whole notion of civilian [leaders] controlling the military is still an alien concept in Pakistan.”

In addition, Rizvi noted, “Afghanistan is still the baby of the Army” and the intelligence service, meaning the security services, determine Pakistan’s foreign policy toward its neighbor.

But on many domestic issues — as well as on negotiating with India and managing U.S.-Pakistani relations — the Pakistani military wants “a civilian face” because it wants societal support for their activities, according to Rizvi.

Furthermore, “the Army has realized that instead of direct management of everything, they can pursue their agenda from the sidelines,” Rizvi notes. “In the past there is a tradition of the ISI [intelligence service] manipulating the election process,” but they don’t have to do that anymore,” Rizvi said. “Because they know whoever comes to power will lean toward the military. They will need military support and military will need a civilian face, a civilian cover.”

“During my time in Pakistan, the military leadership repeated time after time that it was up to the civilians to address such issues as economic policy, energy, education, etc.,” said former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, in an email to the NewsHour. “That’s not to say that the military isn’t intensely interested in the result of the elections, because it clearly wants to see a competent government with popular support,” said the ambassador who served in Pakistan from 2010 to 2012. “That in turn would help the military in its efforts to concentrate on security issues.”

Some analysts in Pakistan believe the parliamentary and provincial assemblies elections will help reduce the power of the Pakistani Taliban, which has been waging an insurgency against the state over the past half-decade.

The election “will be a huge setback to outfits like the Taliban who do not believe in democracy,” said Mehboob. “No matter who wins, [it] will be good for Pakistan’s peace vis-a-vis the Taliban.”

Over the past five years, Pakistan has been wracked by sectarian violence, kidnappings, targeting killings and an insurgency that has left an estimated 40,000 dead, according to the Pak Institute of Peace, which tracks violent incidents.

Polls indicate that the Pakistan Muslim League (N) or PML-N is the frontrunner, led by Nawaz Sharif, who served as prime minister twice during the 1990s and was overthrown by the military in 1999. The party’s manifesto says it is “convinced that militancy and terrorism have no place in Pakistan” and “declares unequivocally that it rejects militancy, and extremism, while condemning terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations.”

“We believe that it is not enough to go after the terrorists per se, but also to go after the causes, the underlying causes, the underlying factors that have given birth to extremism and militancy,” according to Tariq Fatemi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and now a senior official with the PML-N.

Fatemi points out that his party has a range of initiatives to combat the Taliban insurgency, such as “crash programs to establish small and medium size industrial enterprises in the Tribal Areas” that can provide employment and produce “stakeholders in peace and security of the areas,” and education reform that stresses peace and condemns violence and extremism.

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Daniel Sagalyn traveled to Pakistan as part of a journalists’ exchange sponsored by the Honolulu-based East-West Center.

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