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Pakistan's Surprisingly Hopeful Election

A small victory for democracy

In The Clinton Tapes, Taylor Branch’s book of conversations with the former president, Bill Clinton recounts several days in 1999 that constituted “his most ferocious encounter in politics -- bar none.” The encounter was not with Newt Gingrich or Saddam Hussein, but instead Nawaz Sharif, the twice elected prime minister of Pakistan who is set to take office for a third time after a remarkably strong showing in Saturday’s vote.

The trouble began when Pakistani fighters crossed into the Indian-held territory of Kashmir. India quickly retaliated, taking back the ground that had been lost. Sharif, who most likely had been taken by surprise at an operation initiated by his country’s powerful military, traveled to Washington for support. Clinton told him, in no uncertain terms, that Pakistan was at fault. Retreat was the only option. Sharif warned Clinton that the choice was between a nuclear war and his—Sharif’s—political death. Clinton made clear that the United States could only live with the second of those two options. Several months later, Sharif was overthrown in a military coup led by Pervez Musharraf, the man who had planned the misadventure. “Musharraf did the dirty work,” Sharif later said. “But I was made to suffer for it.”

The fact that this same Sharif, the man who oversaw Pakistani nuclear tests and is known for close ties to conservative religious groups, has now made a comeback after years in exile might not intuitively seem like good news for his beleaguered country or its neighbors. But in a place with more than its share of bloodshed and tragedy, Sharif’s rise can be seen as an auspicious sign. Not only has he started speaking out on some of the issues most important to Pakistan’s future, but he will be taking power at a time of near-unprecedented consensus in favor of civilian authority in Pakistan. The military, which is infamous for actually controlling the country’s destiny and interfering with civilian governance, has merely sat back and watched. This weekend’s steps towards civilian control are not nearly sufficient to solve Pakistan’s problems—militancy, terrorism, a disturbingly large nuclear arsenal, constant electricity shortages, poor relations with its neighbors—but they are necessary.

Sharif’s return is only one of the many fascinating and/or tragic subplots surrounding the election. On Thursday, gunmen attacked the son of another former prime minister, killing his secretary and pulling him into their car before driving away.  The brazenness of the attack seemed to be a signal: We can do as we please, to whom we please, whenever we please. In unrelated, or at least not intimately connected violence over the past month, Taliban-type groups have attacked election workers and politicians and heaped scorn on those recommending democracy as an antidote for all that ails the country. But this past weekend, over 50 million people turned out, despite all the threats, and voted. It was the first time in the country’s 66-year history that a civilian government had completed its term and will, we assume, peacefully transfer power.

The actual results, too, can be considered heartening. Historically, the two major parties have been Sharif’s PML-N and the incumbent Pakistani People’s Party (PPP). For comparison’s sake, the PPP is somewhat similar to India’s Congress Party. Both are dynastic (Zardari is the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto), both are corrupt, both are ostensibly secular, and both have some levels of elite support simply because the alternatives are generally pretty dreadful. The current PPP president, Asif Ali Zardari, is astonishingly unpopular in the country for his (supposed) closeness to America, his (confirmed) corruption, and his record of poor governance. The PPP deserves credit for the completion of its term, but its cowardice in office has been noticeable, and it has failed to even attempt to take on the country’s militants. “The PPP can no longer claim to have a national base,” Madiha Afzal, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, told me, referring to the party’s dreadful showing.

This election also saw the rise of a new major party, the PTI, led by the former cricket star Imran Khan. Khan has been a social media phenomenon—those who don’t believe me should try saying anything skeptical about him on Facebook or Twitter—and the subject of much nervous western media coverage, thanks to his calls for negotiation with the Taliban, and some rather, um, none-so-bright statements about geopolitics. (My favorite: saying the creation of the Taliban was a backlash against the War on Terror). After Khan took a bad fall at a rally last week, some observers expected him to receive a boost at the polls. It didn’t happen: his showing was an impressive one, but he got swamped by Sharif. 

This partially serves as confirmation that established parties and patronage networks maintain significant control in the country. (There were some unsurprising, credible accusations of voter fraud). Still, as the analyst Sadanand Dhume explained, perceptively, it gave Khan “just the right balance of encouragement and rebuke.” More political parties and political participation is important; at the same time, it’s good to know Khan will not be the most powerful civilian in the country. (His party may assume control of some of the northwestern areas of the country: in other words, good luck talking with the Taliban!).

All of which leaves Pakistan with Sharif. There is plenty to say about the man that isn’t positive: He is close to Saudi Arabia’s leaders, his party is religious and conservative, and his prior terms in office were not impressive. However, there is some reason to think he has changed for the better. Partially as a result of his personal experience with Musharraf in the late 1990s, he has spoken forcefully for civilian control, and made clear that the military should not run the country. He also did less than he might have done to undermine the PPP’s term in office. And he has called for a closer relationship with India. (His economic competence is considered to be superior to Zardari’s). Again, civilian control and peace with India may not be sufficient to solve Pakistan’s problems, but they are two of the biggest necessary steps.

For all these reasons, Pakistan’s election can be considered a success. But only in relative terms. The country is still teeming with militancy and violence, and it does not seem to be on the verge of undergoing a necessary realignment of its foreign policy—i.e. making peace with India, and ending support for Taliban elements in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the election has entrenched the regional distinctions that have long bedeviled Pakistan. (Bangladesh was once East Pakistan, before declaring independence). The troubled Balochistan region largely voted for Baloch nationalists, the main state of Punjab went to Sharif, and Sindh (as usual) went to the PPP. “The regional divide is probably the starkest it’s ever been,” Afzal,told me. (The secular, poorly run Awami National Party faced so much Taliban intimidation that it could barely compete).

Still, if Pakistan is one day to become a united and peaceful country, just about any relatively free election is good news—and the specter of another election (and still another after that) might well lead other pols to up their games. For that reason, and for the sight of seeing tens of millions of people defy religious extremists and cast a vote, Saturday was the best day Pakistan has had in some time. 

Follow Isaac Chotiner on Twitter: @IChotiner