Yet through all this, a strengthening political culture has taken root and brought about the longest period of democratic rule in the nation’s relatively short history. Last week’s election exemplified Pakistan’s successes, while the election violence and persistent instability in the country indicate that there is some way to go before Pakistan is in the clear.
Pakistan became an independent nation in 1947 amid the liberation of India from the British Empire. Separation of the predominantly Muslim northwest and eastern regions of India into Pakistan would lead to immense migration and widespread violence, as Muslims and Hindus on both sides of the newly drawn borders adapted to the new landscape. Over 1 million people died in the western region of Punjab, which was split by the creation of Pakistan, amid the resulting violence. A further 10 million migrated to either the Hindu or Muslim majority areas.
In the ensuing years, Pakistan experienced continuing tension with India over the Kashmir region, as well as the internal ethnic and religious disputes all too common to a newly independent nation. The failure to build a stable civil state paved the way for a military coup in 1958, followed shortly by a second war with India and the breakaway of Eastern Pakistan to form Bangladesh in 1971. Despite having a number of elections in the past, Pakistan never truly emerged from the grip of the military until 2008.
The historic elections that took place last week mark the first transfer of power between two democratically elected governments in Pakistan’s history. Seats for each of the 272 constituencies making up the National Assembly were filled with new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML) winning the most seats.
The vote did not pass without disturbance as some 130 people were killed in the days leading up to the election and while at polling stations. Yet the violence does not necessarily weaken Pakistan’s drive toward political stability, evidenced by the fact that the killings appear to have been perpetrated by the Pakistani Taliban and other extremist groups which have a vested interest in preventing democracy from taking root.
Meanwhile, the losing parties in the election appear to have accepted defeat, yet will use their seats gained in the parliament to mount an opposition to the new leading party. Of particular note is Bilawar Bhutto, son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007. Bilawar is the new chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, the outgoing majority party, which finished second in the recent election.
Also worthy of attention is former Pakistani cricket hero Imran Khan whose Pakistan Movement for Justice Party finished third — no mean feat considering his party won only one seat in 2002 and boycotted the 2008 elections. Khan has grown increasingly popular with Pakistan’s younger generation, as well as many of the northwestern tribes who oppose the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and continued drone strikes in Pakistan. Support for Khan’s party will surely grow in the wake of the assassination of the party’s vice president, Zahra Shahid Hussain, who was shot dead outside her house during the election.
There remains much to be done if Pakistan is to be taken seriously as a solid democracy. As the new leader, Nawaz Sharif must first win over his critics. Having served as prime minister twice before, Sharif has been mired in scandal and corruption on many occasions. Many describe him as incompetent and power-hungry, and his personal grievance with the military may yet prove good or bad for Pakistan.
Gaining public trust is not Sharif’s only challenge. Pakistan is struggling economically, owing large sums to the IMF and World Bank for loans given in the past. As institutions heavily influenced by the U.S., Sharif must carefully balance his foreign policy toward Washington as he seeks to reduce American influence in his country.
He must also endeavor to draw consensus in what remains a very politically divided country, particularly with the existence of powerful militant groups. Sharif must make clear his intentions to suppress political violence, while refraining from handing too much power to the military or too much support to the U.S.
No doubt Sharif’s victory celebrations have transitioned to a focus on what lies ahead. In many ways, Pakistan’s future sits on a knife-edge, with many delicate issues to be addressed and a tumultuous history that will fuel critics’ forecasts of failure. Yet these things notwithstanding, if the election stands as any indication of Pakistan’s future, the signs are hopeful that there may be a durable peace for Pakistan.