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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Pakistan’s historic elections

Former Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party Nawaz Sharif, center, addresses his supporters as his brother Shahbaz Sharif, right, and daughter Maryam Nawaz, second from left, listen at a party office in Lahore, Pakistan, Saturday, May 11, 2013. Photo: AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

Last weekend, Pakistan went to the ballot box to elect its parliament. Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted in a military coup led by Pervez Musharraf in 1999, won. It is a significant milestone in Pakistan’s history: the transition from one elected government to another. So is Pakistan on the path to normalcy?

It’s still a bit early to celebrate. Saturday’s election was marred by unfortunate violence. Bombs in Karachi and Peshawar killed dozens, marring the otherwise moving pictures of vast lines of people eager to vote. In the months leading up to the vote, Pakistan saw an incredible amount of violence against candidates for office: the Taliban, in particular, targeted the ruling party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), along with its governing coalition partners the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP).

It’s likely that violence targeted at only a few parties distorted the results of the election – how could it not? But some are arguing that even this much was a good thing. Megan Reif, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver, and Nadia Naviwala, the country representative in Pakistan for the United States Institute of Peace, argued in a provocative Foreign Policy article that the election violence was actually good for democracy.

“Pakistan’s 2008 elections were bloodier,” the write, referring to the election that unseated Musharraf and emplaced Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of Benazir Bhutto and current head of the PPP. “Islamist parties have never won more than about five percent of the vote in any of Pakistan’s elections….The apparent increase in the extremists’ use of violence in this historic election is a sign, not of their strength, but of their increasing irrelevance in a society that is moving forward with regular, competitive elections between mainstream parties.”

There might be something to this. Despite the carnage, for the first time in its 66-year history Pakistan has successfully transitioned from one democratically elected government to the next. It wasn’t peaceful, but it was less violent than in 2008. Moreover, election turnout was around 60% — a new high. Progress is progress.

Nevertheless, Pakistan faces enormous challenges. Shockingly, Pakistan expelled New York Times reporter Declan Walsh, one of the most insightful and hard working foreign reporters in the country. Pakistan’s pretensions to respecting press freedom – a laudable goal it clearly strives toward – looks hollow when that’s how it treats one of the best foreign reporters there.

There are also a growing number of worrying reports that women were systematically excluded from voting in some districts. As a rule women shouldn’t be excluded from anything; but in an election as vitally important as Saturday’s was, such exclusion can be incredibly damaging: it has the potential to invalidate the election, leaving a difficult and probably violent re-vote as the only recourse.

And despite stunning rise of Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the PPP and Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PMLN), dominate the civilian government (and have dominated Pakistani politics for decades). Khan sought to unseat them both by promising an end to their domination of the country – a message that resonated with many educated elites and expatriates but wasn’t quite enough to push them aside.

Khan isn’t quite the savior to Pakistan that many of his followers think, either. Before the election, Khan had developed an alarming habit of downplaying the Taliban’s violence in the country while focusing blame for all of their political, social, religious, and security challenges on the U.S. His brinksmanship toward the U.S. – promising to shoot down drones and oppose “militarism” – also made American policymakers ill at ease.

Nawaz Sharif has promised to work with Imran Khan, and has even promised good relations with America as well. But when Zardari became president in 2008, he made similar statements. Relations between Washington and Islamabad did not improve over the subsequent years, to say the least.

More immediately for Pakistan, there are two big challenges Sharif will have to tackle. The most immediate is the Taliban, which carried out most of the pre-election violence. In the last five years alone, more than 25,000 Pakistanis have died in terrorism-related violence since 2008, and about 49,000 have died since 2001. The military has lost over 15,000 troops, including several generals. There is nothing in recent memory in the U.S., not even the September 11th attacks, that is comparable to such losses. Sharif has lashed out at the military in recent months, blaming it for the current dreadful state of security. Resolving that fundamental dispute, which has also defined much of Pakistan’s politics the last few decades, will be crucial.

Less dramatic, but still vitally important for Pakistan is the looming energy crisis. Frequent brownouts, blackouts, and “load shedding” have created havoc for the country’s economy – factories and offices simply cannot operate if there is no power. The PMLN has promised to make energy a top priority, but it won’t come easy. The desperate quest for more energy has led Pakistan to reach out to Iran, a move sure to further antagonize the U.S.

Pakistan is not out of the woods yet. But this weekend’s election was a hopeful first step in the right direction.