It has been well over a decade since Pakistan began feeling the pull toward the two contradictory forces of democratization and violent extremism. These parallel tracks have one common denominator: the country’s powerful military-intelligence combine. Remarkably, despite the continuing civil-military imbalance of power and the national ideological shift to the right, Pakistan is continuing along a complex, non-linear path toward democracy. The United States must pursue its national security objectives and bilateral relationship with Pakistan in ways that complement, rather than undermine, the country’s tortuous trek away from authoritarianism and militancy.
Going into the Election
Pakistanis are set to vote in national elections on July 25. The two major contenders are the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI). The PML-N carries the stain of former three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose involvement in a massive corruption scandal led to his ouster last year and arrest today. The PTI, led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, appears ascendant.
Five years ago, Pakistan’s last election gave the PML-N a comfortable majority government. But recent opinion polls (to the extent that they are reliable) show a close race between the two rival center-right parties. The upcoming election likely will result in a hung parliament. Thus, either of the two will have to ally with several smaller parties to form a government.
This election will mark only the second consecutive occasion in Pakistan’s 71-year history when one democratically elected government transferred power to another. This is an achievement for a country that has been under direct military rule for nearly half of its existence. Yet the military-led establishment retains enough influence to prevent significant shifts in the locus of power. That no democratically elected prime minister has ever completed a full five-year term is a sign of how Pakistan’s military can keep civilian governments off balance.
The judiciary’s empowerment since 2007, though a positive development for the separation of powers and the dispensation of justice, has sustained Pakistan’s chronic civil-military imbalance. Indeed, the southwest Asian nation’s Supreme Court has played a major role in the drive against corruption. The judgments against Sharif, his family and political associates illustrate the tremendous strides the country has made against financial malfeasance by elites. However, the security establishment has adroitly instrumentalized corruption in its efforts to block civilianization of power in an era where coups are no longer feasible. The way PML-N was diminished ahead of the election is just the latest case of pre-electoral engineering in Pakistan.
A New Ruling Party?
It is not clear that PTI will benefit from this situation. If it does, it would mark the end of the political duopoly of the PML-N and assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that has existed for two generations. Many Pakistanis see both the PPP and the PML-N as corrupt and inept and are ready to give PTI, the untested force, a chance to improve Pakistan’s political economy. Though the Bhutto and Sharif clans are politically wounded, their parties retain sizeable followings, especially the PML-N.
In addition to playing the vanguard role in the anti-corruption campaign, Khan’s PTI has relied heavily on the establishment’s imperative to weaken Sharif’s PML-N. The PTI and the ‘deep state’ share a goal: blocking the PML-N’s return to power. Towards this end they have been pursuing a strategy of divide and conquer and forging tactical alliances. Here it is important to note that Khan’s party is aligned closely with radical Islamists who are only so many degrees separated from the country’s violent extremist groups.
The coalition of Islamist parties, the Mutahiddah Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), has re-emerged. The MMA won a sizeable share of seats in both federal and provincial legislatures in 2002 — a result of electoral engineering by the country’s last military regime. Recall that Pakistan’s Taliban rebellion began in 2007, after five years of MMA rule in the northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province located along the border with Afghanistan. The MMA is trying to ride the anti-corruption wave and is running a sophisticated campaign, presenting itself as the party of honest and clean candidates. Regardless of how many seats MMA wins, the Islamist coalition could serve as a force multiplier in PTI’s efforts to form the next government.
Winning enough seats to form a government has been a major challenge for PTI. Should it cross that Rubicon, governance will prove far more difficult. Leading a coalition government is never easy for any party, and it will be harder for the populist PTI, which has pledged to dramatically change the way government and politics are conducted in Pakistan. Policymaking is where PTI will likely run afoul of its establishment allies – an experience that will not be too dissimilar to that of its rival, PML-N, which emerged in the 1980s as the establishment’s proxy against the PPP.
Pakistan has a long journey ahead on the road to democracy. The different factors in Pakistan’s convoluted political development — the civil-military tug of war, political Islam, violent extremism, corruption, economic upheaval and the like — are all part of the country’s struggle with democratization. Each of these elements has made the path toward democracy more tumultuous. Ultimately, Pakistan will have to deal with these issues — which means the country is likely to feel the polarizing pulls of democratization and extremism for some time.
The United States will have to factor in this long-term reality as it deals with its short-term security interests in the region. Political stability and economic development in Pakistan are critical pre-requisites to regional security in South Asia. Certainly, Washington cannot wait for Islamabad to sort out its internal problems. However, the Trump administration will have to deal with the Muslim-majority nation of over 200 million people in a way that does not exacerbate the country’s already complicated path toward democratization.
Kamran Bokhari is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Global Policy (CGP) and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ottawa’s Security and Policy Institute for Professional Development. He tweets at @KamranBokhari. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.