Pakistan's hopeful election
Pakistan's democracy gained from this election, but the new government faces daunting challenges.


Election workers count ballots after polls closed for Pakistan's general elections in Peshawar May 11, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • As political landmarks go, few in Pakistan's history match the successful completion of this past week's elections.

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  • For a nation habitually battered by bad news, Pakistan's elections come as a spot of sunshine.

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  • Pakistan's democracy gained from this election, but the new government faces daunting challenges.

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As political landmarks go, few in Pakistan's checkered 66-year history match the successful completion of this past week's elections. If things unfold as planned, a democratically elected government will for the first time hand over power to another, without the usual interruption by military coup or constitutional putsch. With wins or leads in an estimated 130 of 272 directly elected seats in the national assembly, 63-year-old former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) stands poised to reclaim the office he was unceremoniously evicted from by a military coup 14 years ago.

For a nation habitually battered by bad news, this weekend's events come as a spot of sunshine. Despite around 30 deaths on polling day Saturday—and scores more in the run up to the vote—51 million people effectively stared down a Taliban threat to the election with their ink-stained fingers. The crushing defeat of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, which has become a byword for corruption and lackluster governance, reassures citizens that they don't need the army's help to turf out incompetent rulers. The PPP appeared likely to win only a third of the 100-odd seats it secured in the 2008 vote.

Arguably, Pakistanis also delivered cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan just the right balance of encouragement and rebuke. With 35-odd seats in the national assembly, Mr. Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) has emerged as a leading opposition party, and also claimed power in the troubled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the nation's northwest.

This ought to convince the millions of idealistic young Pakistanis apparently energized by Mr. Khan's appeal as a clean and charismatic outsider that it's worth keeping the faith with democracy. This year's turnout of 60% dwarfed the 44% who showed up to vote five years ago, thanks in no small measure to Mr. Khan's galvanizing effect among first-time voters.

At the same time, Pakistanis wisely denied Mr. Khan the reins of national power. A nuclear-armed nation can't afford to be led by an untested man whose foreign policy is animated by crude anti-Americanism, and whose economic ideas revolve around the unlikely promise of turning Pakistan into an Islamic welfare state, a kind of Sweden with minarets.

By contrast, Mr. Sharif and his younger brother Shahbaz, who runs the populous Punjab province, stand for experience and pragmatism. Mr. Sharif, whose roots lie in business, was the only prime ministerial contender to flatly declare his belief in free markets, and his willingness to privatize unprofitable state-owned companies. The incoming prime minister claims inspiration from Sher Shah Suri, a 16th century Afghan whose rule over northern India is remembered chiefly for sound administration and road-building.

Moreover, with his strong base in Punjab and personal experience with military meddling in politics, Mr. Sharif is best qualified to consolidate Pakistan's democratic gains. In interviews he has made it clear that the prime minister, not the unelected army chief, is the country's ruler. He has also pledged to work with the United States to combat terrorism instead of mindlessly confronting a superpower to play to the gallery in the manner of Mr. Khan. In a similar vein, Mr. Sharif speaks consistently of improving ties with India, and of placing them on a firmer footing based on trade, travel and investment.

Nonetheless, while Pakistan has much to be proud of, only the most reckless optimist would claim that it's out of the woods. Despite this symbolic victory over the Taliban, Islamist violence in Pakistan is on the ascendant.

Mr. Khan's party won power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after the ruling secular-liberal Awami National Party was virtually knocked out of the contest by Taliban attacks. It's not clear that Mr. Khan, who blames American drone strikes rather than Islamist ideology for Pakistan's terrorism problem, is equipped to deal with the troubled province. Previous attempts to pander to the Taliban rather than fight them have only emboldened them to step up attacks.

Nor do Mr. Sharif's previous terms in office inspire undiluted confidence. During his last stint as prime minister from 1997-99, he jailed journalists critical of his government, had his supporters storm the Supreme Court to show judges who was boss and picked a fight with the army which led to his ouster by Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Mr. Sharif has also shown a disturbing penchant for flirting with conservative Islam. As prime minister last time, he started calling himself Amir-ul-Momineen, or commander of the faithful. The PML-N has cultivated ties with violent anti-Shia groups based in Punjab.

There's also the fear that Mr. Sharif, a Punjabi in a country where Punjabis make up about 60% of the population, lacks the finesse to grasp the federal nature of his country. Moreover, by winning almost all of its seats in Punjab, the PML-N risks stoking resentment by citizens of smaller provinces wary of an overweening big brother.

Mr. Sharif's vaunted desire to put Pakistan's generals in their place may also prove easier said than done. In 1999, the army under Gen. Musharraf managed to start a mini-war with India in the disputed territory of Kashmir without Mr. Sharif being any the wiser for it. Over the past five years, under two different PPP prime ministers, the army has refused to surrender its monopoly on key foreign policy decisions or its outsize share of national resources. Nor has it cut its links with militant groups in Afghanistan and India. If anyone can alter this damaging pattern, it's Mr. Sharif. But if the past is any indicator, don't hold your breath.

Nonetheless, for now it makes sense to give Mr. Sharif the benefit of the doubt. His supporters claim that he has matured over the years and is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of the past. There's no question that Pakistan's voters believe that he's the best man to lead them in turbulent times. Now it's up to Mr. Sharif to prove that third time's a charm.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a columnist for Follow him on Twitter @dhume01



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