21 October, 2020

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Pakistan’s Democratic Milestone: First Electoral Succession In 66 Years

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Pakistan passed a rare milestone in its bumpy 66 year history.  For the first time power has been transferred from one elected government to another.  The succession of power in Pakistan has almost always alternated between civilian and military administrations.  National elections usually followed long periods of military dictatorships under Ayub Khan (1959-68) and Yahya Khan (1968-71), Zia-ul Hak (1977-1988), and Perverz Musharraff (1999-2008) – a total of 32 years.  No civilian government or Prime Minister who governed in between was allowed to complete the full elected term.  So it was a rare achievement that the May 11 General Election to Pakistan’s 14th National Assembly marked the completion of the full term of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government elected in 2008.

Remarkably, and in a worthy example that Sri Lanka could follow, the elections to Pakistan’s four Provincial Assemblies were held on the same day as the election to the National Assembly.  The elections, as the well-connected commentator Farahnaz Ispahani noted, were a definite victory for democracy in Pakistan but a potential setback for the federation of Pakistan.  Pakistani people turned out in encouragingly large numbers (60%) to exercise their vote and celebrate democracy in the face of intimidation, threats and killings by Taliban and other religious extremists.  But the voting and the verdict were fractured along ethnic and provincial boundaries.  The fragmentation of voting is a matter for concern but should not be used as an argument against federalism – as it seems to have become the wont of academic geographers in Sri Lanka.

Ethnicity is has become an organizing principle in Pakistani politics as it is in other South Asian countries including Sri Lanka.  Pakistan’s four main ethnic groups, the Punjabis, Sindhis, Pashtuns and Baluchis, are geographically concentrated in the four Provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK, formerly Northwestern Province), and Baluchistan. Punjab accounts for  more than half (148) of the total elected seats in the National Assembly, followed by Sindh (61),  KPK (35), and  Baluchistan (14).  The remaining 14 seats are distributed in the Federal capital of Islamabad, the Federally administered tribal areas.  In addition the National Assembly allocates 60 seats to women representatives (35 of whom are allocated to Punjab) and 10 seats to non-Muslim minority representatives nominated by each political party in proportion to its number of elected representatives.  This again is a worthy model for Sri Lanka where the National List seats could be used to increase women’s representation and to give seats to sections of the population who do not achieve representation through elections.

The election results in Pakistan are fragmented along geo-ethnic boundaries with each major party dominating a single province and no party achieving an overarching national presence. Thus the victorious Punjab Muslim League (PML-N) led by Nawaz Sharif won over 120 of its 130 seats in Punjab, the outgoing PPP won 30 of its 31 seats in Sindh, and Imran Khan’s  Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI – Pakistan Justice Party) won 20 of its 35 seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 8 in Punjab.  Historically, although belonging to the Bhutto dynasty in Sindh, the PPP has been Pakistan’s only ‘national party’ until now.  In the last parliament, the PPP held 94 seats from all the four Provinces, but in this election the PPP has been reduced to a party of the rural Sindh.  Although impressive, Nawaz Sharif’s victory lacks electoral legitimacy outside Punjab.  For Imran Khan the election results fell far short of the expectations that his stirring campaign raised both within and outside Pakistan.  Khan’s PTI secured most of its seats in the northwestern KPK territory but could not achieve the anticipated breakthrough in Punjab.

Provincially, the PML-N swept the assembly seats in Punjab securing a two-thirds majority, the PPP won more than half the assembly seats in Sindh, and Khan’s PTI won a third of the seats in KPK and is poised to form the government in that Province.  None of the three parties fared well in Baluchistan and a coalition of minor parties are likely to form the government.

The PPP’s dismal showing nationally is really the people’s punishment for the party’s worse than dismal performance in governance.  It was also singularly targeted by the Taliban forces during the election campaign as payback for the PPP government’s dependence on the US.  On the other hand, the parties of Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif were not targeted by the Taliban and religious extremists.  Mr. Sharif, a protégé of Zia-ul Haq, is a conservative who has in the past advocated negotiations rather than confrontation with the Taliban and other militants.  Members of Sharif’s PML-N are also known to links to the militant groups.  Imran Khan may not have such networks in place but he played to Pakistani patriotism and the general antipathy towards the US, even dramatically promising that as Prime Minister he would order the shooting down of the American drones if they entered Pakistani airspace.  In addition, the Peshawar High Court has recently ruled that drone strikes are illegal and a war crime. A similar view has been expressed by Ben Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur.

Inheritances and challenges

For Nawaz Sharif, this is his third opportunity to serve as Pakistan’s Prime Minister.  His two previous terms were abruptly terminated by the army – first indirectly in 1993 and later by a military coup staged by General Perverz Musharraff in 1999.  The political power structure he is inheriting is somewhat less insecure than what he had to deal with in his two earlier stints, but the challenges he will be facing especially on the economic front are far more daunting than they were before.  As Prime Minister, he will also have to navigate Pakistan’s regional and international relationships involving Afghanistan, India and the US.

As for power structures, there is greater balance now than ever before between the three branches of the state in Pakistan, namely, the army, the government and the judiciary.  The judiciary that won its spurs by taking on President Musharraff has since shown its power and willingness to take on the government.  The army is still powerful but seems to have realized that a direct military takeover is no longer an option.  An instance of the new limitations came in the so called ‘Memogate’ affair in 2011.  At issue was a Memo written by the then Pakistani ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani (who had earlier represented Pakistan in Colombo), to a US Admiral asking for US protection for the Pakistani government against an impending military coup.  In earlier times, this would have been a good excuse for a military coup but matters did not go beyond media controversies, court battles and resignations.  As well, the unwelcome return of General Musharraff and his arraignment in the court has sent shivers through the military establishment.  Put another way, army officers fear that Musharraff may have created a precedent for subjecting military leaders to court inquiries.

Nawaz Sharif as opposition leader kept the pressure on the government all the time, but fully supported the PPP government completing its full term in office.  More importantly, the PPP led by President Asif Ali Zardari and the PML-N under Nawaz Sharif co-operated in enacting the 18th and 19th (I am not making this up!) Amendments to the constitution that (a) reduced the powers of the President and expanded those of parliament and the Prime Minister; and (b) devolved greater powers, autonomy and financial authority to the provinces.  The PPP government, while universally condemned for its corruption and incompetence, has also been credited by commentators for institutionalizing democracy in Pakistan for the first time since its inception.

Imran Khan’s aggressive campaign and his use of the social media has also helped create political awareness among significant sections of the population. He galvanized the youth and despite his outlandish promises succeeded in mobilizing people against corruption and incompetence.  He even introduced a system of ‘primaries’ for selecting candidates for the Party.  Although the effort was hardly a success, it was a worthy effort considering Pakistan’s dynastic stranglehold on electoral politics.  In the 1970s, the story on Pakistan was about the 70 families who controlled Pakistan’s economy.  The story now is about 600 families that have accounted for 3300 of about 7600 elected seats in the National Assembly, the Senate and the four Provincial Assemblies over the course of nine elections since 1970. To put this in perspective, about half of the country’s elected representatives belonged to 600 out of about 40 million families in the country.

Prime Minister Sharif has won a strong mandate even though most of it is from Punjab.  He is coming into office for the third time when the democratic system of government is at its strongest, the army is not as strong as it used to be, and the judiciary is exercising its independence more vigorously than at any time before.  Mr. Sharif has struck a positive and inclusive note including a visit to the hospital to see Imran Khan who is recovering after a bad fall from a platform in an election rally.  There also reports that the new Prime Minister will be offering the chairmanship of the powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to Imran Khan, who has now won a seat in parliament.  As Chair of PAC, Mr. Khan could continue his crusade for accountability and against corruption.

Pakistan’s economic problems are similar to Sri Lanka’s but on a significantly larger scale.  The energy crisis is bad enough to require the rationing of electricity supply.  The government’s revenues are falling thanks to poor tax collection. High military budgets and debt levels are also troubling.  Economic activities and investment prospects are hampered by internal law and order breakdown and ever present Taliban attacks.  The Prime Minister is not taking any chances with the economic portfolio and has appointed Ishaq Dar, who was the Finance Minister in the two previous Sharif governments, as the new Finance Minister.

Indian commentators seem happy with Nawaz Sharif and the prospects for improved relationships between the two countries.  His positive overtures to India were a reason for the military coup that overthrew his government in 1999.  He has now invited Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to attend his inauguration.  But Prime Minister Sharif will have his hands full in dealing with Afghanistan and the US.  During his previous terms, Sharif cultivated the Taliban while working closely with the US.  He is not the only Pakistani leader to have done that.  But such a duplicitous position will become increasingly untenable in the future.

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    Nawaz Sharif is no saint. Ask the Pakistanis. The military coup in 1999 which threw him out was prompted by his own impetuous action in refusing the plane carrying General Musharaff ( who was returning from an official visit to Sri Lanka) to land in Pakistan. Let us hope that his enforced exile has brought him down to earth.

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