BACKGROUND: Pakistan’s 2013 elections were rightly called an historical event since for the first time in the country’s history, a democratically elected government was able to finish its term and a democratic transition took place.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government which started its term after gaining a majority in the 2008 elections failed to provide any relief to the masses which suffered power shortages, hiking electricity and gas prices and sky rocketing commodity prices. The law and order situation, terrorism and ethnopolitical problems in Baluchistan intensified. Numerous stories of alleged corruption among government officials including the prime ministers and their sons added to the public resentment.
By the time elections were announced, it was obvious that the real contest would be between the Pakistan Muslim League (PML N) led by two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Justice Party, PTI) led by former cricket super star and philanthropist Imran Khan. Another development was that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) after offering peace talks, openly threatened to attack political campaigning and told Pakistanis to stay away from elections as it is against their interpretation of Islam. It particularly targeted Awami National Party (ANP) in Khyber Pakhtunkwa. As a result, a number of ANP leaders and supports were killed and the party was pushed to restrict its election campaign to corner meetings.
While PPP almost had no election campaign, it was widely believed that PTI would emerge as a major player in the coming parliamentary setup. A number of observers also stated that PTI might emerge as the majority party by a clean swipe the elections. Under Khan’s leadership, PTI promised to build a new Pakistan (naya Pakistan), and focused on eliminating corruption, reviewing Pakistan’s relations with America and its role in the war on terror, financial, land and agricultural reforms and expanding the tax base in the country. Pakistan’s youth overwhelmingly supported the PTI and it was widely believed that if the youth actually came out on Election Day and cast their votes, PTI would actually win the elections.
Perhaps the most important thing is that Pakistan resisted the threat posed by the TTP. Despite TTP threats and terror attacks, resulting in 51 deaths on Election Day, the turnout was above 60 percent, the second highest in Pakistan’s election history after the first elections in 1970.
IMPLICATIONS: PML (N) emerged as the majority party in the elections, which is not surprising. The PML (N)’s over 100 seats in the national assembly has diminished the possibility of a hung parliament. Apart from a significant presence in the national assembly, PTI has emerged as the majority party in the strategically significant and troubled province of Khyber Pakhtunkwa and will be establishing the provincial government. Although Sharif will make history by becoming prime minister for a third time, it is not going to be a joyride for him as the country in facing immense challenges. PTI will also be tested as it made excessive promises in its election campaign. It remains unclear whether it can deliver on these and make Khyber Pakhtunkwa a success story, and whether it will be willing to support the central government on important issues such as relations with the U.S. and India and Pakistan’s role in the war on terror and the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The PML (N) government will face a number of problems and challenges at the domestic, regional and international levels. In the last few years, Pakistan’s domestic problems have multiplied. Pakistan is currently facing a major law and order and security challenge from groups like TTP and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Recent attacks on the Shia minority in Baluchistan and in Karachi indicate that this problem is worsening. PML (N) favors a dialogue with the TTP and Sharif soon after winning the elections stated that he would negotiate with the TTP. Although TTP withdrew its peace talks offer after the recent drone attack which killed its deputy chief, Wali-ur-Rehman Mahsud, PML (N) believes that a meaningful dialogue is still possible. This step will have serious implications as TTP is a terrorist group allegedly entertaining links with the Taliban in Afghanistan and is responsible for terror attacks throughout the country. TTP also rejects Pakistan’s constitution and aims to occupy the state’s territory, implement their interpretation of sharia in Pakistan and then merge it with what is their ultimate objective, the Islamic Emirate of Khurasaan. Whether PML (N) would be able to get all factions of the TTP to the negotiating table and whether all stakeholders will support such a move remains to be seen. However, this would most likely create further divisions in Pakistani society.
Another challenge is the increasing energy shortage, especially of electricity and gas, creating problems for the industrial sector and affecting the economic and financial situation of the country, which is already in a dismal condition. In the next few months, Pakistan has to pay its loan installment. It is facing an increasing fiscal deficit, an extremely low tax to GDP ratio of less than 9 percent, and its lowest ever GDP growth at 3.6 percent. Above all, Pakistan’s public debt has grown to Rs 14,561 billion. (ca. US$145 billion)
Regionally, Pakistan’s situation is not favorable. Relations with India continue to be in a stalemate. In the past, Sharif has sought to improve Pakistan’s relations with India and under his leadership, the bilateral relationship will likely inch towards normalization. However, a breakthrough is impossible until a new government is installed in New Delhi after next year’s elections. The India-Pakistan rivalry recently expanded into a new theatre: Afghanistan. And it is in Afghanistan where most of Pakistan’s foreign policy challenges lie. In 2014, the U.S. will withdraw from Afghanistan and Pakistan will have to play a significant role in the withdrawal, as Sharif has acknowledged.
However, the PML (N) government’s biggest challenge will not be regional or international but the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkwa. PTI has emerged as the majority party in the province and will be forming the government in the province. PTI contested the elections on a platform of detaching Pakistan from the war on terror; banning drone strikes and performing extensive social and financial reform. After the recent drone strike, Khan challenged Sharif to clearly state his policy on drone strikes and shoot down drones if the U.S. does not quit the operations, an indication that the relationship between the central and provincial government will be complicated in the days ahead.
CONCLUSIONS: It is a positive development in Pakistan’s political culture that a smooth democratic transition has taken place. However, how this will effect Pakistan’s domestic, regional and international relations will largely depend on whether PML (N) and PTI can work together. If PTI follows the same rhetorical stance on which it contested the election, it will not only further complicate the situation in the country, it will also be detrimental for the future of democracy in Pakistan.
AUTHOR’AS BIO: Rizwan Zeb is based at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia. He is a former visiting scholar at the Foreign policy program, Brookings Institution and a Benjamin Meaker visiting Professor, University of Bristol, UK.