Clad in Pakistan Army’s camouflage uniform and carrying the staff in his left hand, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani walked into a polling booth in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, produced his national identity card, got the ballot papers and then cast his vote in last Saturday’s general and provincial elections.
In previous elections, army chiefs, including Kayani, sent their ballots in the post. The deviation this time, perhaps, signals that General Kayani has sent a message that the days of military coups are over.
Kayani’s public display of faith in democracy together with the fact or feat that Pakistan has for the first time since the birth of the country in 1947 seen a democratically elected government completing its full term makes one to believe that democracy has come to stay in Pakistan: Democracy won’t be interrupted as has been the case in the past. When Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister in 1988, ending a decade of military rule under General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, a pessimist’s graffiti on a Karachi wall in typical television language said, “Sorry for the disruption due to democracy, the usual martial law will resume soon”.
Such pessimism is fast receding in Pakistan. The 60 per cent turnout -- considered large by Pakistani standards -- underscores the people’s faith in democracy. In Pakistan, the military has assumed for itself the role of the guardian of the nation. Many a military general in the past believed that politicians, elected or otherwise, were corrupt or incapable of governing the country. Also in the past, the people had looked to the military when elected politicians became oppressors. It happened in 1976 when the elected Prime Minister, Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto, used disproportionate force to quell country wide protests against his rule. Whenever the elected governments became corrupt, the people would say they wished the military had been in power.
But such yearning for military intervention when politicians fail, it appears, is a thing of the past. The Pakistanis have begun to believe in people’s power. It worked well in getting rid of the military rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The military saw people’s power was stronger than military power.
The defeat of the Pakistan People’s Party at last Saturday’s election was largely due to public perception that it was corrupt, from the prime minister downwards, and it had failed to revive the economy. In January this year Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on corruption charges on the grounds that when he was minister in charge of electricity, he had accepted bribes from power-plant companies. Days after the Supreme Court order, a top officer conducting investigations into the charges against Ashraf died under mysterious circumstances though officials said he had committed suicide.
Also this year, Islamic scholar Tahir-ul-Qadri launched a million-man march in Islamabad against government corruption. Government supporters said Qadri and the proactive Supreme Court had teamed up to help the military to break-in from the back door. Yet no such military coup took place.
One possible explanation as to why there was no military intervention throughout the full-five year term of the PPP government under two prime ministers, Yousuf Raza Gilani and Pervaiz Ashraf, was that the judiciary has become a powerful check, -- a role which the military had been playing in the past. The Supreme Court had also ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Gilani on contempt of court charges after he failed to carry out a court order that the investigations into corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari be reopened in Switzerland. The charges related to kickbacks and money laundering.
With the judiciary playing a democracy-protecting role, the people began to look to the judiciary as the saviour instead of the military to check a corrupt government. After all, democracy is all about checks and balances. That such checks and balances do exist in a country that has struggled to establish democracy while extremist elements and foreign powers seek to destablise it is indeed a boon. The new-found independence that the judiciary enjoys in Pakistan began with moves by former military ruler Musharraf to oust Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhry in 2007 in a bid to legitimise his stay in power. When Choudhry refused to resign, he was forcibly removed by Musharraf who declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution. Musharraf’s actions triggered a lawyers’ protest which soon grew into a massive people’s power movement against him. He had to flee the country and live in exile until his return to Pakistan in March. Now under house arrest, Musharraf faces several court cases related to the breach of the constitution.
With the military disciplined, with the judiciary strengthened and with the people empowered, the task ahead for Prime Minister-elect Nawaz Sharif, who led his Pakistan Muslim League-N to electoral victory, will be tougher than conquering K2, the highest peak in Pakistan’s Karkoram mountain range. Governing a country of more than 180 million people with internal rebellions and external threats to its security amidst a slow-growing economy and sectarian bloodshed is no easy task.
Pakistan’s economy has been growing at only 3 per cent for the past six years. During the election campaign Sharif vowed to end corruption and overhaul the economy. The voters badly wanted both these things to happen and a majority had faith in him.
Sharif, a big industrialist, can revive the economy. During his previous two terms in office, Pakistan experienced economic booms. In a recent interview, Sharif said he would hire professional managers for loss-making state companies and end the cycle of debt that had crippled electricity companies blamed for crippling power cuts. He plans to tap the IMF for a major loan facility to revamp the economy and stop the drain on foreign reserves.
Yet, he is not Mr. Clean. His first government (1990-93) was cut short by allegations of large-scale corruption. Opposition politicians charge that his industries steal electricity from the national grid.
But today’s Pakistan is different from what the country was during Sharif’s two previous terms as prime minister. Sharif’s other problem, analysts say, is arrogance. In his previous two terms, he failed to treat the military and the judiciary with reverence. He failed to believe in checks and balances between the institutions, which included the military. In 1999, Sharif dared to defy the Army. He removed Army Chief Musharraf while the latter was returning from Sri Lanka. He ordered all airports in the country not to allow the Pakistan International Airlines flight from Colombo to land. An angry Musharraf used a mobile phone to mobilise the military and launch a successful coup. If not for Saudi Arabia’s intervention, Sharif would have spent much of his time in prison during Musharraf’s eight-year military rule.
Sharif is expected to be more circumspect in his dealings with the military and the judiciary in his third term. He is expected to take his oaths from President Zardari, whose term ends in five months. A new president will be elected by an electoral college comprising members of the national and provincial assemblies.
Another major challenge facing Sharif is the question of the Pakistan-based Taliban, who are not only fighting the NATO troops in Afghanistan across the border, but also Pakistani troops. The good news is that Sharif will witness the end of the US occupation of Afghanistan in December next year -- a move that could herald peace and stability in Pakistan.
Aware that the country needs stability for economic growth, Sharif has called for peace talks with the Taliban, which unsuccessfully tried to disrupt the elections by setting off bombs and preventing people from voting. The fact that a large number of people defied the Taliban and voted showed that extremists were just a minority within Pakistan.
In his effort to mend fences with the Taliban, Sharif sees a partner in cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, who is now recuperating in hospital after suffering a fractured spine during a stage-collapse days before the elections. Khan’s Pakistan Teherik-e-Insaf (PTI) or Pakistan Movement for Justice did relatively well at the polls, emerging as a third force in Pakistan’s politics. The presence of Khan, regarded as an honest politician, in parliament will be a welcome check against corruption. According to inconclusive results, the PTI has so far won 27 seats in the national assembly and took control of the Pashtun-dominated Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, bordering Kashmir, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. Khan has given a three-day ultimatum to the elections commission to investigate allegations of vote rigging in 25 electorates and has threatened to launch countrywide protests if his party’s complaints are not acted upon.
Another major issue that Sharif needs to deal with is Kashmir – or the dispute with India. The last time he was prime minister of Pakistan, the two countries came close to a major war over Pakistani military activities in the Kargil sector on the Line of Control that divides the disputed Kashmir region. It was during his premiership that Pakistan tested its nuclear device and emerged as a nuclear power.
Sharif made an election promise that he would revive the stalled peace process with India with the intention of solving the more than six-decade-old Kashmir problem. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a congratulatory note, invited Sharif to visit India, and expressed optimism that the two countries could begin a new relationship. Manmohan sent a similar or more endearing note to Zardari when the latter won the elections in 2008. But relations only worsened between the two countries with each accusing the other of supporting terrorism.
In the case of Pakistan, in security matters, be it the Taliban issue, Afghanistan or India, it is the military that takes the decisions. Though the military may stay out of governance, in security matters, it refuses to hand over power. Sharif who learnt a bitter lesson by trying to take over that power is unlikely to repeat the mistake.