The precarious success of Pakistani democracy

Pakistan goes to the polls tomorrow to elect both national and provincial parliaments. My preview from last time around explains some of the history and the electoral system, which is unchanged this year, although there has been a somewhat dubious redistribution of seats.*

The 2013 election marked the first occasion that an elected government faced the voters after serving a full term, and this year is the second. Pakistan can at last boast of a surprising measure of democratic success. But the media’s failure to notice this is not surprising at all.

For the media, Pakistan is a land of terrorism, disorder and religious fundamentalism. And those problems are by no means imaginary. But it’s hard to see how a relentless focus on the negatives does the country any good.

Like last time, the election will primarily be fought between three parties: the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), headed by Shehbaz Sharif, brother of 2013’s victor, the eponymous Nawaz Sharif (currently in jail for corruption); the Movement for Justice, or Tehreek-e-Insaf, headed by former test cricketer Imran Khan; and the Pakistan Peoples Party, headed by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son and grandson of prime ministers.

In ideological terms, the PML-N is basically centre-right, Tehreek-e-Insaf centrist and the PPP centre-left. They also have strongly regionalised support: PML-N in Punjab, Tehreek-e-Insaf in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the old North-West Frontier Province) and the PPP in Sindh.

More important than either of these things, however, is their position on the issue that has plagued Pakistan almost since its inception: the influence of the military.

The generals first seized power in 1958, and did it again in 1977 and 1999. Their principal foe has been the PPP, whose founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed by General Zia in 1979; his daughter Benazir was assassinated in 2007, probably with the connivance of General Musharraf.

But Nawaz Sharif, who started out in the military’s corner, has also fallen out badly with them. This time accordingly the generals are said to be backing Imran, whose party is running close behind the PML-N in the opinion polls.

The other key factor is religion. Unlike many developing countries, in Pakistan the military tends to be more influenced by fundamentalism while the civilian politicians are more secular. It was the military that sponsored the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, and more recently it has established some sort of connection with IS/Da’esh.

So of the three major parties, it is Tehreek-e-Insaf that is most pitching for the fundamentalist vote, even though Imran himself is clearly no fundamentalist. A victory for it would probably signal disengagement from the war in Afghanistan and a more tense relationship with the United States.

Unquestionably the security establishment has thrown its considerable influence against Nawaz and the PML-N. The big question is how fair the election will be, and whether that influence will be enough to procure victory for the military’s favored candidate.

A subsidiary question is, if the PPP emerges with the balance of power, will it be able to bring itself to support its old enemy Nawaz, or will it do some sort of deal to allow Imran to take office? And if the latter, will his considerable skills as a cricketer translate into the ability to run a country?

Results should start to appear Thursday morning (eastern Australian time), but based on the 2013 experience it’s a fairly slow process.


* A detail that was lost on the BBC, whose map gives the old allocation of seats to provinces.


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