Pakistan elections and the hope for democracy

Pakistan should work to build trust and respect, not only with the US, but also with India and Afghanistan.

Pakistan Prepares For General Election
"The Pakistan Muslim League headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will have strong showing in the Punjab province," writes Akbar Ahmed [Getty Images]

This year’s general elections in Pakistan will be remembered for two things: the determination of the people of Pakistan to see them through and the equal determination of the men of violence to prevent them. As Pakistanis prepare to go to the polls on May 11, there is much nervousness and hope for its outcome, potentially the first successful democratic transition between two popularly elected governments in Pakistan’s history. 

What my experience as a district officer has taught me, however, is that there is nothing more dangerous than changing horses in mid-stream. National elections have proven in the past to lead to the collapse of law and order and the imposition of martial law. With the promise of the current elections, this is a cycle that appears to be broken, but we should be aware of its dangers.

As an administrator in the field, I oversaw several elections in Pakistan and dealt first hand with both Pakistanis’ strong desire to have democracy and the plans of some to disrupt the process. What always impressed me was that in spite of all that Pakistanis still cling to the dream of a genuinely democratic polity.

Yet, since its inception, Pakistan has always struggled with democracy. It has oscillated between periods of democratic rule and military dictatorship. Weak and corrupt governments inevitably led to martial law and military rule which in time also became corrupt and tyrannical.

Disrupting the elections

What has been an impediment to lasting democracy has been the violence and breakdown of law and order which often accompanies elections. This time, though, it is a different kind of violence. Groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are not only determined to disrupt the elections, but also to shake and destroy the very foundations of the structure of the state itself. 

In the last few days, we have seen the Hazara community in Balochistan brutalised; frequent attacks against political candidates and their supporters in Peshawar and Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and in Karachi; fighting between the Pakistan army and the Taliban in Tirah Valley which cost many lives on both sides; and the killing of the prosecuting attorney in the murder case of Benazir Bhutto.

Amidst the chaos, it is difficult to predict the outcome of this election. Given the political forces on the landscape, it appears that no single party will sweep the elections. The Pakistan Muslim League headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will have strong showing in the Punjab province. There has been a lot of talk about former cricketer Imran Khan and the “tsunami” that will push him into power. Commentators compare his popularity to ZA Bhutto when he rose to power, which led to the disastrous breakup of the country in 1971. 

There are also regional parties that need to be factored into the election results, such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi and the Awami National Party (ANP) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Former President Pervez Musharraf, despite the self-declared fanfare for his own election prospects, has been pushed out of relevance, having been banned from running for Parliamentand seeming out of touch with reality. A bewildered populace can only wonder what motivated Musharraf to return to Pakistan. 


Pakistan Elections

Whether Mian Nawaz Sharif emerges on top and is able to form a ruling coalition with Imran Khan, setting aside their aversion for one another, or President Zardari shows he is still able to hold onto power despite a lacklustre performance, the new government will very quickly need to address the law and order situation on the ground. It has collapsed in many districts of Pakistan. Ordinary citizens would find the random violence that is so widespread unacceptable, even if there were prosperity in the land. At a time of high unemployment and high prices, such violence makes life almost unbearable for ordinary people. Too often, we hear stories of Pakistanis committing suicide in despair.

In terms of policy, the government needs to tackle law and order through strong political and administrative actions in the Tribal Areas, Balochistan and Karachi. It should begin by opening a series of negotiations with local political groups and appointing its finest police and civil officers in the field. By providing a fair and neutral civil administration, it will ensure justice is accessible and swift. The present state of anarchy cannot continue without seriously affecting the credibility of the nation. 

The government should focus on education initiatives and employment programmes for the poor. These are both great challenges for any country but with a population of some 180 million people and almost 60 million living below the poverty level, it becomes even more vital to take an immediate, long-term and holistic approach to these serious problems. 

Relationship with neighbours 

The Foreign Office needs to devise ways of rebuilding better relationships with those countries vital to Pakistan’s foreign policy. A constructive relationship with both of its neighbours, Afghanistan and India, is vital. Yet relations with Afghanistan have greatly deteriorated with shooting along the border and a complete lack of trust between the two countries. Once Americans leave, Afghans believe that Pakistan will interfere with its domestic situation. 

For India, relations with Pakistan are always subject to being swayed by the slightest incident, insult, or provocation, such as the recent killing of Sarabjit Singh in a Pakistani prison which the Indian Prime Minister rightly called “barbaric”. Both are quick to ascribe blame and evil intentions to the other side. Pakistan needs to have consistent positive relations with India and build on the current thaw. 

For Pakistan’s close ally, the United States, it is critical – at a time of heightened anti-Americanism – to put the relationship between the two countries in a historical perspective. Both Americans and Pakistanis should remember that when First Lady Jackie Kennedy visited Lahore in 1962, she rode with President Ayub Khan in an open car while hundreds of smiling Pakistanis lined the streets and tossed flower petals at her. Now, both should ask what happened to that affection? Pakistan should work to build trust and respect, not only with the US, but also with India and Afghanistan, in order to have mutually beneficial relationships.

These efforts would help to restore the confidence of Pakistanis in the government itself. With the current view of the people that the better connected do not pay income taxes and can get away with murder, the new government must be committed to the rule of law. No Pakistani should be above the law. The dramatic arrest of Musharraf may have caused dismay in some elite circles, but ordinary Pakistanis were thrilled to see a former president and head of the army held accountable for his actions.

The new elected government could do no better than to re-dedicate itself to the ideals of Pakistan’s Founding Father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam or “Great Leader”. Though Pakistan today is a far cry from Jinnah’s vision, it is nonetheless crucial for the new government to have an ideal to aspire to. The ideals of the Quaid-e-Azam were: human rights, women’s rights, minority rights, the rule of law, and the explicit condemnation of corruption and nepotism. Only by working towards this vision of the modern state can the Pakistani government be legitimate in the eyes of the international community and, more importantly, its own people. 

Akbar Ahmed is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, and a former Commissioner of three consecutive divisions in Balochistan. He is the author of The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings Press 2013).

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