Roots of democracy showing signs of regrowth

The ice has been broken at last. The Pakistan Muslim League (N) may not have swept the polls as it did in 1997, but the election marked the first ever democratic transition in the nation’s 66-year history. Another first that happened in Pakistan was the record turnout of nearly 60 per cent of voters, including women, who queued up before polling booths to exercise their right to vote. All credit must go to them for breaking with former tradition as well as braving the threats of the Taliban, who had bloodied the pre-poll atmosphere.

Nawaz Sharif is all set to occupy the most important building on Constitution Avenue in Islamabad, the country’s power centre, for his third term as Prime Minister. Though the PML (N) has kept at bay the threat posed by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaaf, it has failed to get an absolute majority in the National Assembly. This means that Sharif’s party, with just 122 seats, will have to seek the support of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) or some splinter groups to form a stable government. A fragmented National Assembly would also mean that it will take a few weeks of haggling before Sharif cobbles together a coalition government.

That the electorate has gone for an experienced ruler over an exuberant Imran Khan is an indication that the people of Pakistan have placed their faith in Sharif, who returns to power after 14 years. Khan, who is convalescing in hospital after suffering injuries from a fall during the rally, could not turn the election upside-down, as was the prediction before the polls. Yet his popularity, particularly among women and first-time youth voters  they constitute 44 per cent of the electorate  could not be discounted because he is not corrupt, he is a taxpayer and his party alone practised internal democracy. One also expected some sympathy votes to go his way, but that didn’t happen and finally Khan had to concede defeat.

Fortunately, the anti-India plank, the hallmark of elections in Pakistan, was missing this time. It was understandable because most leaders now want to have strong ties with India and condemn the American drone attacks. Everyone in Pakistan now admits that it does

not pay to antagonize a neighbour. The country, accused by India of sponsoring cross-border terrorism, is today itself a victim of regular terrorist attacks. The days preceding the polls and the actual day of polling saw several bomb attacks in Karachi, the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan, where hundreds of innocent people lost their lives. The Awami National Party, the main target of the Taliban, had to bear the brunt of the attacks.

As for the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), it was a foregone conclusion that it would finish a distant third during the election. Even had it been otherwise, the party has grown weak over a period of time under Asif Ali Zardari, and it owes much to Nawaz Sharif for managing to complete its full five-year term in office, during which time its performance was dismal, to say the least. Zardari, who was propelled into office on the strength of sympathy votes following the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto, was widely despised as corrupt and ineffective. His government not only failed to bring in any economic reforms, but it also failed to address problems with basic facilities, such as water shortages and power outages. The law and order situation was the worst, with increasing violence throughout the country. As the incumbent president, Zardari was not allowed to campaign, but it wouldn’t have mattered much anyway. Yet his party has been sustained somewhat because of its loyal rural voters.

Nawaz Sharif has his task cut out. He will have to undo most of what the previous government did. First and foremost will be to meet pre-election promises, including providing the people with an uninterrupted power supply. The unemployment problem in Pakistan has made a number of misguided youth an easy target for religious and radical outfits, so Sharif’s government will have to address this situation to the satisfaction of those who voted his party into to power. He will have to attend to the problem of rampant corruption among political parties and bureaucracy, the main worry for the people. Another onerous job facing Sharif is to strike a balance between his civil administration and the military, against which he has long nursed a long grievance.

Sharif will be advised to strengthen the country’s civil institutions and build up people’s faith in them. That is the only way to keep out the military, which has extended its stronghold even on trade and commerce. Indeed, corporations owned by ex-military hands dominate 70 per cent of Pakistan’s business and real estate. Government contracts go first to them. No democratic government can collude in this state of affairs. The military’s rule is to defend the country, not to administer it.

It was Pervez Musharraf who threw his democratically elected government out in a bloodless coup 14 years ago. With Mushraff now reduced to a nonentity and under house arrest, Sharif will have to leave it to the courts to do their job. However, he will be wary of General Parvez Ashfaq Kayani, who is due to retire this November. The general has kept himself away from overindulgence or influencing the government on foreign or security policy matters, but it remains to be seen what his successor will do. In any case, you cannot take the military away from Pakistan’s administration. We have seen in the past how the military has intervened whenever there has been a political crisis in the country.

Zardari will remain president until September. Soon after that, the PML (N) leader will have to look for an acceptable president who will not meddle in the affairs of Sharif’s day-to-day governance. Similarly, Sharif will have to keep his eyes open with regard to the judiciary which has been overreactive lately. Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, is due for retirement in December and Sharif will have a keen interest in who replaces the long-serving incumbent. All this will matter so that Sharif can keep a tight leash on his government, and so that he can function independently before he sorts out things one by one.

Institutions are important for a democratic polity. Musharraf demolished them to establish his own personal rule. There is no doubt that this election has proved that democratic forces have won yet again. People have made sure that democracy, which had begun to take root some years ago in Pakistan, has not been uprooted again.  One only hopes this does not turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. It is up to Nawaz Sharif to live up to the people’s expectations and keep their faith intact.

— Kuldip Nayar