Ten points to team Pakistan!
For the first time in it’s history, Pakistan’s government has made a peaceful democratic transition from ruling party to an opposition party. There’s a lot to be said of this, noting how far Pakistan has come.
Pakistan is the fifth largest democracy in the world and has experienced a tumultuous back and forth between military and civilian governance. After a bloody split from India as part of British decolonization, Pakistan was led by the internationally renowned Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was instrumental in the establishment of an independent state dedicated to protecting Muslims on the Indian subcontinent. His death less than 13 months later left the young country to less capable statesmen, who failed to govern as its inchoate political institutions floundered. The military was viewed as a pillar of stability, having inherited the majority of officers in the former British India military hierarchy. Following a spate of political instability, Pakistan experienced it’s first coup in 1958 under General Ayub Khan, who declared himself the new President.
Since it’s founding, Pakistan has undergone three successful military coups, along with numerous other attempts to seize national power. Gen. Khan (1958-1968), Gen. Zia-ul-Huq (1977-1988), and Gen. Pervez Musharraf (1999-2007) attempted to burnish their supposed religious credentials in lieu of democratic legitimacy. In 1979, Gen. Zia introduced an Islamic Penal Code, which followed with amendments in the 1980s that expanded the definition for what could be declared an insult to Islam. This became a highly effective tool for eliminating political enemies, not unlike the lèse majesté laws protecting the monarchy in Thailand. It effectively undermined political dialogues for decades to come and served to provide a cloak for those who would seek to undermine the human rights of others through the guise of religious piety. Clerics who had gotten used to their increasing influence in government are pushing back against efforts to remove some of the more audacious measures that had been passed during the eras of previous dictators.
The three main parties competing nationally for control of the parliament in elections on May 11th have a mix of experience and vibrance in Pakistani politics. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is chaired by 24 year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is the son of President Asif Ali Zardari and former PM Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007. The Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) is led by Nawaz Sharif, who served as Prime Minister a number of times in the 1990s before being deposed by General Pervez Musharraf in a coup in 1999. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is led by Imran Khan, a former cricket captain and philanthropist, and not ridden with the family politics of the PML-N and PPP. The final vote tally gave the PML-N the largest share of the votes (32.7%), followed by the PTI (16.7%) and the PPP (15.1%). As such, the current PPP-ed government will be replaced by a coalition government led by Mr. Sharif. The presidential election, held on 30 July, resulted in the election of PML-N candidate Manmoon Hussain to succeed Pres. Zardari (PPP). Following the passage of 18th amendment in 2010, the presidency has been reduced to a mostly ceremonial role, transferring most of its powers the Prime Minister’s office.
With this peaceful change in government, the populace of Pakistan has breathed a sigh of relief. Some political pundits are touting the possibility of a new coup in Pakistan following events in Egypt. Yet the appetite for a return to military rule in Pakistan is weak. The populace does not long for a return to rule by the fist, as can be seen by abysmal reception of Pervez Musharraf after his declaration that he would seek to stand for election when he returned from exile (while avoiding charges of corruption and responsibility for the death of Benazir Bhutto).
Many problems persist for PM Sharif and the 14th National Assembly. Relatively mundane issues, such as expanding the taxpayer base and finding a more effective means to collect rents on electricity usage, will have to coincide with existential threats posed by assassination and bombings undoubtedly supported by the Pakistan Taliban and other groups contesting the powers of the national government. Tensions remain high with neighboring India, evident in new accusations of treachery following another incident in Kashmir, resulting in the shooting death of 5 Indian soldiers. Interesting to note, the two provinces under Pakistani control in the Kashmir region, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir, were not allowed to participate in the vote. The separatist movement in Baluchistan continues to cause disruptions, and relations with the United States remain as strained as ever. The new government, having fallen a crucial few votes short of a majority, will have to form a new coalition government. Many suspect that PM Sharif will reach out to the PTI and Imran Khan, with hope that there combined efforts can be more effective in managing the country’s problems while wrestling with the military’s notorious Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Many share reservations over Sharif’s prior record of corruption, as well as the enormity of the tasks that lay before his new government. Yet hope for a brighter dawn remains palpable. With over a million Afghan refugees sharing homes with friends and family along the border, bearing even more pressure upon government services, the Pakistani people seem eager for the government to get to work.