Argument

Sharifistan

Sharifistan

The party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may have swept Saturday’s polls in Pakistan, but the biggest winner was clearly democracy.

Sixty percent of registered voters took part in the elections, the highest number since 1970. These voters — including Pakistan’s traditionally apathetic urban elite — did so despite the very real threat of violence by the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the country’s most powerful terrorist group.

Pre-election violence, which took over 100 lives, and terrorist attacks on the day of the polls in Karachi, Peshawar, and elsewhere, did little to deter voters. The high turnout, including unusually large numbers of women and young people, was not only a testament to Pakistani resilience, but also a slap in the face of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud, whose group tried to intimidate voters and delegitimize democracy by claiming that it is antithetical to Islam.

Saturday’s polls were not without their flaws. There were blatant attempts to obstruct voting or rig elections in multiple constituencies in Karachi and elsewhere in the country. On Sunday, Altaf Hussain, the self-exiled London-based leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the political party that dominates Karachi, issued a not-so-veiled threat of violence against peaceful protesters demanding a revote in one of the city’s constituencies. In insurgency-wracked Balochistan, voting irregularities suggested that the military was tinkering with the ballots. At the same time, separatists in the province also waged a terrorist campaign to intimidate candidates, voters, and others involved in the elections to produce an extremely low turnout. In sidelining Baloch nationalist politicians who returned to Pakistan to take part in elections, the Pakistani military may have unwittingly aided separatists in preventing Baloch politicians from coming back into the democratic — and nationalist — fold.

But in most places, the greatest threats to the vote were not violence and corruption but incompetence and inefficiency. Some voters had to wait over six hours to cast their ballot. Polling officers were poorly trained and there was no dry-run conducted before election day. The Sharif government must continue the process of reforming the federal election commission, not simply make changes in the weeks and months before the next election. To deepen the public trust in democracy, the government of Pakistan must make clear to its people, including the 36 million new registered voters, not only that their vote matters, but that their right to it is inviolable. 

Whatever else Pakistanis may disagree on, there appears to be a consensus, at least for now, that democracy is the way forward. The country’s major power brokers — its two largest parties, the army, judiciary, and private media — have been at odds with one another over the past five years, but the chaos has been controlled and all these actors exercised some restraint during the election so as to not derail the democratic process. With the high turnout on election day and enthusiasm that preceded the polls, the public appears to be buying in to the democratic system as well. (Remember, this is a country where military strongman Pervez Musharraf once enjoyed an approval rate above 60 percent.)

But if this pro-democratic sentiment is to survive, voters need to see results in the form of good governance and meaningful economic reform. The Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), which has led the country’s ruling coalition for the past five years, must be given credit for helping instill a culture of consensus-building among Pakistan’s political elite. This traditionally adversarial lot managed to pass three major constitutional amendments that not only involved a significant amount of give and take, but also instituted the electoral reforms that made Saturday’s great turnout possible.

On the other hand, the PPP largely failed at managing the country’s economy. While its Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) — which provided cash transfers to low-income families — succeeded at limiting the damage of the economic slowdown on the country’s poor, it did little to boost economic growth. The PPP also balked at taking measures to increase income tax collection (Pakistan has one of the world’s lowest tax-to-GDP ratios) or reform the archaic state-owned enterprises that bleed billions of dollars a year. The PPP-led government was on the verge of bankruptcy for most of its tenure.

A critical mass of Pakistanis voted for Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), because the pro-market party is seen as the most likely to rehabilitate the country’s dying economy. Throughout the campaign and since the elections, Sharif has made clear that economic reform will be his priority. But he must get Pakistan’s elite — of which he is a part — to pay their taxes. He must also invest in job creation and smart infrastructure development. That means prioritizing vocational education and affordable public transportation networks over highways and bullet trains. The international community is sick of giving the government of Pakistan handouts.

The challenges Pakistan faces are grave. The economy is mired in stagflation. The government is essentially bankrupt. The terrorist threat endures and evolves. Radicalism is a cancer that eats at the country’s core. And neighboring Afghanistan could face another civil war. But with one of its highest voter turnouts ever, and the army, politicians, judiciary, and media all acting in support of democracy, the country has taken a decisive step in right direction. Political stability and legitimate governance are prerequisites for enduring reform. 

Indeed, this has been recognized by none other than Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who last month described this Saturday’s elections as a "golden opportunity that could usher in an era of true democratic values." He said that democracy and good governance could relieve Pakistan’s "present suffering" — a statement lauded by secular political forces usually critical of the army.

These encouraging words from Pakistan’s most powerful security official do not mean that the final chapter of military rule in Pakistan has been written. But the political consciousness of Pakistanis — aided by over a dozen cable news channels that vigorously take the country’s politicians to task — is greater now than it has been in recent decades. Pakistan’s democrats have a clear mandate to rule. Now they must deliver.