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Shadow Government

Pakistan’s turbulent elections present an opportunity

Pakistan has just held a historic election with the highest voter turnout in four decades. For the first time, a civilian administration completed its full term and handed power to new civilian leadership. The military stayed in its barracks and did not openly seek to tilt the electoral playing field, as in the past. Youth ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan has just held a historic election with the highest voter turnout in four decades. For the first time, a civilian administration completed its full term and handed power to new civilian leadership. The military stayed in its barracks and did not openly seek to tilt the electoral playing field, as in the past. Youth turnout was strong. From the ground, where I was part of a delegation from the National Democratic Institute observing the election, Pakistan did not look like a failed state. Rather, it appeared to be a country whose people desperately want good governance and economic opportunity, and believe their democratic choice may help deliver it.

Yet there is another Pakistan, one in which nearly 150 people – including political candidates and their supporters – were killed by the Pakistani Taliban over the past month. Leading politicians from national and regional parties were unable to campaign as militants placed "head money" not only on candidates but on their wives and children. A former prime minister’s son, running for a parliamentary seat, was kidnapped in broad daylight at a political rally just days before the vote. And the chairman of the nation’s ruling party had to campaign from abroad, so fearful was he of assassination by militants. Dozens were killed in election-day violence in Karachi, the country’s commercial capital – despite the nationwide deployment of 300,000 extra security forces to ensure peaceful balloting.

Incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) faced down a late surge by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), now confronts enormous expectations. During the previous five years of rule by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the country’s energy infrastructure fell further behind the burgeoning demand, while economic growth lagged badly. Corruption among the country’s governing elite reached new heights, despite Pakistan’s enormous socioeconomic deficits. The Pakistani Taliban strengthened its position not only in the rugged borderlands along the Afghan frontier but in major urban centers. Sectarian violence between Sunni extremist groups and persecuted Shia and Christian minorities spiked. In short, Pakistan began to look ever more like a failing state, with leaders unable or unwilling to confront vexing national challenges.

Sharif has pledged to focus on expanding reliable energy supply and economic reforms to catalyze growth and job creation. Although Pakistani democracy received a fillip from Saturday’s vote, the authoritarian temptation will return if this government cannot put the country on a sustainable economic trajectory. That will require a prime minister who not only can leverage his private-sector background to press for real reforms, but also roll back the corruption and misgovernance that have condemned Pakistan to lackluster economic growth.

Another hoped-for incentive for reform will be the long shadow cast by PTI leader Imran Khan, whose party fell short in the elections but captured the imagination of young, urban Pakistanis with its challenge to politics-as-usual. Khan has been playing a long game, sitting out the last elections in 2008 because he did not believe they would be free and fair, establishing intra-party democracy that highlights the dynastic qualities of the other parties, and speaking bluntly about the failure of the Pakistani state to reflect its people’s aspirations. Given demographic and socioeconomic shifts in Pakistani society, his party threatens to displace the PPP and challenge the PML-N as Pakistan’s leading political movement. To placate and co-opt Khan’s fervent supporters, Sharif will need to deliver on his promises or risk fueling Khan’s anti-establishment narrative.

Pakistan’s new leaders will also need to manage relations with other internal constituencies, including an activist judiciary and a powerful military lurking just offstage. This year will see the retirement of the assertive chief justice of the Supreme Court, the departure of the president from office, and the retirement of the chief of army staff. The choice of their successors will do much to shape Sharif’s ability to deliver on his governing agenda.

Finally, the external environment may become more favorable to Pakistani reform and growth. India hopes to resume the détente that started with the 1999 Lahore Declaration during Sharif’s previous tenure as prime minister. The drawdown of Western forces in Afghanistan will create instabilities, but they also create the opportunity for Pakistan and the United States to enjoy a more normal relationship not premised on Pakistani cooperation (or lack thereof) in a third country. Pakistan’s successful democratic transition, combined with its increasingly dangerous pathologies, suggest that it is high time the West dehyphenated Af-Pak and focused on how Islamabad can deliver on its people’s aspirations to live in a thriving, peaceful nation — not a Talibanized one.

A version of this article appeared as a German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Take (www.gmfus.org) .

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