Monday, May 13, 2013

No Coup is Good Coup: Pakistan's 2013 Elections

In a country whose history is marred by military interference, ranging from bullying to outright takeover, the first peaceful democratic transition from one civilian government to another is about to take place. On May 11, 2013, Pakistan held general elections that resulted in two-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League taking at least 125/272 seats. The world’s fifth-largest democracy appears to be on the verge of finally deserving its title.

Thumbs up: A woman casts her ballot in Lahore. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Since independence in 1947, there have been three successful and many more unsuccessful military coups in Pakistan. In its 66 years of independence, Pakistan has spent 33 years under military rule. Although elections have taken place in the interim, the public’s perception of military control over civilian governments has historically led to low voter turnout in elections. The previous election in 2008, which transferred power from the coup-initiated government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, saw only a 44 percent turnout amid widespread reports of election fraud. Saturday’s election already has a projected 60 percent turnout, an increase that indicates a return of voter confidence that their voices would not go unheard.

PM-elect Nawaz Sharif’s victory has also boded well for Pakistan’s struggling economy. The Karachi stock exchange jumped to historic highs once Sharif’s win became apparent. He is viewed as a free market, pro-business politician that will focus his efforts on increasing Pakistani trade, especially with traditional enemy India. Sharif himself was toppled in a military coup led by Gen. Musharraf in 1999, spending several years in exile until returning to a more favorable political climate in 2007. Musharraf was forced into exile in turn at the end of his rule, and in a hugely symbolic case was arrested following his return in March 2013 and charged with corruption in one case, and also placed under house arrest for his role in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in another.

The detention of the military’s old guard aside, Saturday’s election success came amid widespread pre-election violence and threats, which makes the high voter turn-out all the more impressive. Sixty-four people were killed in attacks on election day itself, while over 100 have died in pre-election violence. The son of former PM Yousef Raza Gilani, Ali Haider Gilani, was kidnapped in May, and the police chief of Balochistan’s home in Quetta was bombed. Despite these high-profile incidents of violence, even in the most dangerous districts voters would not be deterred from the polls.

Pakistan’s new government faces large and looming problems as it takes office: a destitute economy, a severe shortage of electricity, and ongoing homegrown terrorism. While on the first two issues Sharif has strong prospects for success, he has a lukewarm history of fighting terror. His power base derives from Punjab province, home to several terrorist organizations including Lakshar-e-Taiba, and he depends upon their constituents’ support in elections. Even with this obstacle to peace in Pakistan, the country still has a stronger democracy, more assertive and independent judiciary, freer media, more extensive youth engagement, and better relations with India than it has had in decades. Pakistan will depend on continued improvement in the years to come: American withdrawal from Afghanistan is right around the corner in 2014, and the chaos that will almost certainly ensue on Pakistan’s border will require Sharif’s government to uphold its promises of democracy more fervently than ever before. 

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