A vote for stability in Pakistan

Final results are still trickling in from Saturday’s general election in Pakistan, but there is no dispute about the basic shape of the result. The Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif has won a clear victory, and Sharif will become prime minister for the third time.

The Pakistani electoral commission has the bad habit, presumably copied from the British, of only releasing figures once counting in a seat has finished. Of the 272 constituencies (there are also 70 seats for women and minorities, allocated proportionally), just on half had been declared by late this morning (about 6.40am Pakistan time).

Of those, the PML(N) had won 71, a narrow majority but well clear of its rivals. Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice, had 18, the outgoing Pakistan Peoples Party had 14, a coalition of fundamentalist parties had seven and the liberal Muttahidda Qaumi Movement five.

Unofficial results, widely reported by the media, show Sharif’s party ending with somewhat less than half the seats, but in a position to assemble a majority with minor parties and independents. Talks to that effect are said to have already begun.

It was reasonably clear prior to the election that the PML(N) was the only party with a chance of getting to such a strong position, so it made sense for voters to rally to it in the interests of stability. (See last week’s preview here.) Nonetheless, as is usual in Pakistan, the vote was geographically divided: Sharif’s strength is overwhelmingly in the Punjab, the country’s largest province, while the PPP remains strong in Sindh and Khan’s Movement for Justice looks like being in a position to govern in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province).

There is also an element of the same rural-urban divide that we saw last week in Malaysia. While Khan’s party finished well back in second place, it is disproportionately popular with the urban middle class and evidently with younger voters. That, together with Khan’s status as a cricketing legend, helps to account for its prominence in the media.

Whether Sharif is the best person to bring a divided country together will depend a lot on how much he has learned since he was last in power. His two terms of office in the 1990s were troubled at best, being marked by corruption scandals, constitutional crises and a small-scale war with India. In 1999 he was removed in a military coup led by his army chief, General Musharraf. Musharraf’s original intention was apparently to have Sharif executed, but he settled for exiling him to Saudi Arabia, where he remained until 2008.

Since Pakistan’s history has been plagued by military interference in politics (and in foreign policy), the fact that Sharif has been at the receiving end of it himself is probably a good thing. As Ben Doherty puts it in this morning’s Age, “he has never forgiven the military for forcing him from office”:

Gone is the man who was seen as the protege of Pakistan’s generals, and who conspired with shadowy army chiefs to bring down the government of Benazir Bhutto. … Most importantly for Pakistan, a country that has spent half its independent existence run by the military, Sharif says he will champion democracy and the rule of law.

In addition to the military, Sharif had also in the past been seen as close to the Islamist side of Pakistani politics, and it may be that one of the ingredients in his success on Saturday was the way that the campaigns of his more secular rivals (particularly the PPP) were paralysed by the threat of Taliban violence. But in that respect also he seems to have mellowed, and it was Khan rather than Sharif who played the anti-American card when it came to the “war on terror” and the worsening morass in neighboring Afghanistan.

If anyone has the experience and the wiliness to steer safely between the competing demands of the Americans and the Taliban while trying to modernise Pakistan, Sharif is probably the one.

But possibly more important than the direction of the new government is the fact that Pakistani voters, despite the violence and the confusion, have shown their commitment to democracy. Turnout was reported to be more than 60%, the highest since 1970, and for the first time in the country’s history one civilian government will transfer power peacefully to another.

In countries like Australia we tend to take democracy for granted; it takes somewhere like Pakistan to bring home to us what a remarkable thing it is.

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