A New Dawn for Pakistan?

By TP Saran

In the general elections held in Pakistan last weekend, the clear winner is the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML-N led by Nawaz Sharif. According to the latest figures available, in the 272 seats contested, the PML-N has bagged 131 seats, followed by the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf) of former cricketeer Imran Khan with 37 seats, and the PPP of President Asif Ali Zardari with 31 seats. The remaining seats have been shared by a motley of smaller parties and independent candidates, and there are a further 70 seats in the National Assembly reserved for women (60) and non-Muslims (10), making a total of 342 members in the National Assembly.

These elections have been considered a landmark event for Pakistan, because it is the first time in its troubled political history that a democratically elected government has been replaced by another democratically elected one in a voter turnout of about 60%. As columnist Mahir Ali notes in the Pakistani daily The Dawn, ‘In many countries that wouldn’t be considered a particularly enthusiastic level of popular participation, but in Pakistan’s context it is a historic high.’

This is even more significant because people defied the threats by the Taliban, which decried democracy as a system of the infidels unsuited to an Islamic country, to exercise their right to vote. The sad part though is that nearly 120 people have lost their lives due to violence during the campaigning and on election day. Truly, democracy in Pakistan is coming at a heavy price but, clearly, democracy is what the people want and have been prepared to sacrifice for it.

On the other hand, there is also a dramatic irony in the situation, with Nawaz Sharif riding triumphant and the former self-styled (2007) President Parvez Musharraf after returning from exile in London being put under house arrest by the judiciary, which it had earlier antagonized by going all out against Justice Iftikar Choudry. He is the very one who had overthrown in a coup (1999) then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and forced him into exile to Saudi Arabia. He even tried to prevent him from returning to contest elections in January 2008, but finally had to bend to the pressure from the Saudis who were reluctant to continue holding Sharif in their country. Now Sharif has obtained a resounding mandate to lead Pakistan for a third time as Prime Minister.

But will he deliver? That is the big question, and Mahir Ali quotes BBC journalist Owen Bennett-Jones: ‘When Nawaz Sharif was removed from power in 1999, many Pakistanis expressed great relief, describing him as corrupt, incompetent and power-hungry. By overlooking that history and giving him such a strong mandate in this weekend’s elections, Pakistanis have expressed their confidence that Mr Sharif is now an older and wiser politician.’

It is Mahir Ali’s turn to query, ‘Older, yes. Wiser?… that remains to be seen.’ His doubt is premised on the fact that Sharif’s mandate is ‘based overwhelmingly on Punjab (which) complicates his task in terms of national integration.’ Why? Here it must be noted that Pakistan is a country of deeply entrenched ethnicities, namely Punjabi, Sindhi, Pakhtun, Balochi and Mohajir: those who migrated from India and are based mainly in Karachi. Their leader is Altaf Hussain, for a long time exiled in London because his party the MQM had been banned. Declarations he has been cited as having made in the wake of the elections – which he has denied — to the effect that Karachi may separate if the election results are not recognized (the PTI has made allegations of rigging and has asked for recounts, in Karachi among other places) have caused a stir in the polity.

The power game in the leadership of Pakistan has, from its inception, been played out in the fierce and often fatal rivalry between the Punjabis led by its succession of generals such as Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia-ul-Haq, and the Sindhis represented by the Bhuttos. Latter-day Musharraf is a Mohajir and for all one knows can be considered a departure if not an aberration from the traditional power game, now restored back to Punjabi Nawaz Sharif. The latter is thought of as being a conservative and close to the religious right, and more at ease with the extremists such as the Taliban. From a certain perspective that has been articulated, this may constitute for him an advantage as he may be a more acceptable negotiator to them. And if he is any wiser, as is hoped, this may well be a trump card for him to bring much needed stability to the country by curbing extremism and violence, giving him more space to tackle the major problems of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment that should be his immediate priorities.

In a pre-election declaration, he had made it clear that he intends to make the Constitution respected; namely that it is the civilian authority, represented by the democratically elected Prime Minister, which is the authority in Pakistan, and not the military. It is only too well known that for most of its life as an independent nation, it is the military – predominantly headed by Punjabis — that has dominated Pakistan, even in policy matters, especially foreign policy. Willy-nilly, although he is a civilian, the fact that he is a Punjabi makes his task of achieving national integration rather more difficult because, further, ‘Punjab has historically, and with good cause, been accused of political and economic hegemony.’ Mahir Ali hopes that ‘he will be keeping this in mind as he negotiates with independents to set up a stable government,’ because ‘a stable government should strive to ensure that impression is not reinforced.’

Perhaps indicative of a changed mindset in the running of affairs in Pakistan, a team of 19 Indian journalists were allowed to cover the elections. In a declaration he made to one of them as the results rolled out and he was almost sure of a win, Sharif stated in forceful terms his desire to normalize relations with India because they had such deep commonalities in terms of population, food, culture and so on. He would take off where then Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee and he had made the first historic steps – the Amritsar to Lahore bus – and was keen to visit India ‘even if he is not invited.’

No need to say some of the Indian journalists went euphoric about this declaration. But there were more cautious voices as regards the declaration of intent, by seasoned diplomats such as KC Singh, given the difficult economic and social situation that Sharif is inheriting. It was hoped, however that even if he began with some symbolic gestures – such as granting MFN (Most Favoured Nation) status to India which has been pending – this could kickstart a process that would eventually be beneficial to both countries.

Mahir Ali’s observation in this respect is also one of not having too high expectations at the start: ‘Sharif’s conciliatory tone towards India, meanwhile, is a welcome signal and Manmohan Singh’s presence at his inauguration would be symbolically useful. (NB: Manmohan Singh has already invited Nawaz Sharif to visit India at a mutually convenient date) Even on this front, though, ostensibly good intentions have in the past been thwarted by precipitate actions by the military or its proxies.’

And as he concludes, ‘On these and various other fronts, Sharif has his task cut out. Notwithstanding his record in power, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. But he shouldn’t be counting on the likelihood of an extended honeymoon the third time around.’

It would seem, therefore, that if Nawaz Sharif manages to rein in, as he has stated, the military and the violence associated with extremism and terrorism, he may well lead Pakistan on the path of much-needed stability, peace and prosperity. Who knows that he may usher in a new dawn for Pakistan. That would indeed be a game-changer both for his country and for the region. Let’s wish him well as he gets into gear.


* Published in print edition on 17 May 2013

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