Pakistan elected its new parliament on 11 May 2013. The tiger – as many in the media have titled – has roared again: according to preliminary results, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) that used the tiger as its election symbol is way ahead of all its rivals but still short of an absolute majority. As a follow up to our pre-election blog,(1) we have conducted email interviews with four eminent observers of Afghanistan’s eastern neighbour and asked for their initial thoughts about the election’s outcome: Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid; Frederic Grare from the Carnegie Foundation; former GDR ambassador to Islamabad and deputy head of UNAMA Karl Fischer; and last but not least, Dr Hossain Yasa, editor-in-chief of Kabul-based daily Afghanistan Observer (with questions by Thomas Ruttig).
There seems to be a contradiction: a high voter turn-out, reflecting the urgency to solve Pakistan’s multiple crises, and the victory of the PML-N, reflecting a return to an ‘old remedy’. . .
Ahmed Rashid (AR): Voters would rather trust an old pair of hands than new ones, like Imran Khan, given the depth of the crisis that Pakistan faces. At the same time, large numbers of votes were cast for Imran everywhere but did not translate into seats in the first-past-the-post system.
Frederic Grare (FG): The political system, as well as local dynamics, has undoubtedly favoured the PML-N. Moreover, the political offer outside was quite limited. One tends to forget that Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) is ideologically extremely conservative and close to the PML-N – hence the choice of the PML-N as the preferred alternative to the currently ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). What the participation tells us is basically that despite all the talk about Pakistanis being disgusted about politics and politicians, which probably reflects part of the truth, there is a deep aspiration to democratic participation in the country. The youth vote remains to be analysed but it seems that it did play a significant role in the participation increase.
Karl Fischer (KF): The electorate is yearning for security, political stability and economic improvement in a democratic dispensation of government. The PPP failed to fulfil its election promises of 2008, was incapable of overcoming the economic crisis and could not provide security to the common people, proved to be resistant to reform, weak in legislation and sunk deep into corruption. Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N allowed the PPP coalition government a full parliamentary term of misrule, voiced balanced criticism and made all the promises the people in the street would like to see fulfilled in the near future. The PML-N network of local notables mobilised the traditional vote bank and, as usual, the voters tended to forget Nawaz Sharif’s earlier failures and record of corruption. It is old wine in new bottles, under increased popular pressure for an improvement of living conditions, however.
Hossain Yasa (HY): The high turnout was for two main reasons. First, the old PPP government could not deliver as per the desire of the people of Pakistan in combatting bad governance and corruption, addressing the energy crisis and the economic drawdown as well as dealing with the growing insurgency. Secondly, there is an ‘anti-incumbency factor’; that is, in the history of Pakistan, none of the parties ever won a second, consecutive turn. Pakistanis wanted a change from the incumbents’ rule to new rulers. And the media played an important role in mobilising the people.
The success of Imran Khan’s PTI: a first crack in the feudal party system, or a flash in the pan?
HY: Although there are many speculations about the PTI, there are many in Pakistan who are fed up with the two-party system on the national level. The PTI leadership is not happy with their results but many applaud PTI for this performance. No one expected Imran Khan performing better than this. It is too early to say that this is a mandate against the feudally based politics since PML-N is still there, with the second best performance in its polling history.
AR: It is a success for him, he can make the government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province which will give him invaluable experience for the future. He could even become Chief Minister as he has won a seat in Peshawar. He has the chance now to prove his desire to talk to the [Pakistani] Taleban. On the national level, he will be effective opposition.
FG: The very relative success of Imran Khan’s PTI (he will form the government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa but comes only third at the national level, far behind the PML-N) is anything but a crack in the feudal party system. It should be observed that the PTI is not a newcomer on Pakistan’s political scene but did take off only when a number of former notables from the PML of both factions joined its ranks. Its policies and sociology has sometimes been described by the Pakistani press as ‘old wine in new bottles’. Moreover, its ideology and policies are very close to those of the PML-N and they compete for the same conservative electorate.
KF: Imran Khan understood the political frustration of the younger generation and the disappointment of many stalwarts of different parties who had lost their leading positions and were not included in their former parties’ candidate lists. Most of his promises are exaggerated and unrealistic, and combined with his lack of political experience this might sooner or later erode the electoral gains he made. The traditional party system is far from cracking, but the electoral results provide the people of Pakistan with an experience in democracy, that could help in breaking out of a situation where only religious forces seem to offer prospects for a better future.
PML-N almost exclusively wins in the Punjab, PPP and MQM in Sindh, PTI (and Jamaat-i-Islami/JI and Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl/JUI-F) in KP, nationalists in Balochistan – what does this regionalisation mean for Pakistan?
KF: The losses suffered by the PPP and the ANP indicate a serious setback for the secular forces, and the dominant position of the PML-N symbolises a shift of different sections of the population towards consolidating religious attitudes. While the PPP is losing ground as a national party, the PML-N is gaining in this respect. The regionalisation of the main parties could sharpen political contradictions between the provinces, as Punjab will gain even more weight with the PML-N ruling both in this province and at the centre. The danger of fragmentation will therefore remain and secessionist tendencies are bound to survive or even grow, if the new government fails to quickly strengthen equitable federal structures and procedures. It is a matter of urgency to find and implement political, economic and social solutions for Balochistan beyond the military options.
AR: This regionalisation is a threat but it has been ongoing for more than a decade now. We have seen its results – a separatist insurgency in Balochistan and an Islamic insurgency in KP, with deep unrest in Karachi. So, it is a threat without a doubt and no amount of military action can stem it.
FG: This regionalisation should not be interpreted as a sign of fragmentation of Pakistan. Quite to the contrary: The victory of the PML-N in Punjab and at the centre means that the government will be stable since Punjab is by far the largest province of the country in terms of population. The victory of the nationalists in Balochistan should be seen as a chance to appease the situation in the province and bring back a population increasingly alienated by repression into accepting a future within Pakistan. As for KP, the province has rejected the Pashtun nationalists and voted in favour of a national party, ideologically close to the PML-N and with a leader said to be very close to the security establishment. As for Sindh, traditionally a PPP stronghold, it remains faithful to its political history. The situation looks like a de facto sharing agreement in which everybody will be represented and which creates the conditions for a relatively traditional and sane interaction with the central government.
HY: PML-N did not win the elections exclusively but of course swept Punjab. The PPP is able to make the Sindh government without any support by another party. PTI will probably govern in KP, and in Balochistan there was always the same situation. The current results show that PML-N has to be careful in its future political dealings since the mandate is very scattered, based on ethnic, linguistic and regional affiliations. The unanimous vote of Punjab for the PML-N is not a good message for the other provinces.
How do you interpret the performance of the Islamist parties, JUI-F and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI)?
AR: They have done well in KP which is moving more and more to the religious right. They are challenging Imran to try and form the next government together. I think it will be a disaster for KP and Pakistan if they do because of their proximity to the Pakistani Taleban.
KF: JUI-F has lost seats but remains the strongest conservative religious party in the National Assembly and the Provincial Assemblies of KP and Balochistan. It was only capable of retaining this position by inducting ‘electables’ – a category used in Pakistan both for candidates and other influential figures who are able to mobilise voters – of other parties, who were mainly motivated to join JUI-F by the threat of Taleban attacks. Additionally, the JUI-F was able to bank on the support of its madrassa network in the provinces. JI is well represented in KP and with 2 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly. Obviously it is lending more importance to non-parliamentary activities within the Difa-e Pakistan Council. This could turn out to become a serious nuisance factor for government policies.
FG: The poor performance of the JUI-F and JI are not surprising. Historically, the JI has had difficulties translating politically the social capital accumulated through its social work. Moreover, Islamic parties have been successful in the elections only when strongly supported by the security establishment. They have a constituency in the country but a limited one. Although the results will have to be examined carefully in the coming weeks to see how local dynamics influenced the election results, it looks like they are getting back to their real level of representativeness.
HY: The performance of both the parties has not been impressive and is unexpected. Anti-American sentiments are found throughout Pakistan, but they could not capitalise on it to create a reliable vote bank. The rise of PTI in KP means that the people wanted a change but not in favour of the religious right-wing parties.
Nawaz Sharif has a record of improving relations with India. What can be expected on this issue?
FG: Nawaz Sharif has made it very clear during the campaign that he wanted better relations with India and, given his record in the matter, there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. Moreover he will have the support of part of the business community. The question is how far will he be able to go? Whether or not to forge peace with India still divides mainstream civilian political parties and the military. Yet the latter has currently shown an interest in appeasing the relationship. Pakistan also needs to get out of the relative isolation generated by its Afghan policies. A new phase of the rapprochement between the two South Asian neighbours can therefore reasonably be expected but Nawaz will have to walk a fine line and will probably have to be cautious in his approach.
KF: Nawaz Sharif will continue to favour an improved political and economic relationship with India. His past attempts in this direction, however, met stiff resistance of the military leadership and were regularly thwarted. Whatever success we can hope for, will depend on how the civil-military relationship works out. The Kashmir issue will remain on top of the agenda, without the solution of this issue being made a precondition by the Pakistani government, as so far, for progress in other fields, in particular on the economic front. Most Favoured Nation status will be granted and implemented and trade will grow considerably. Regular exchanges at the top and the ministerial level will increase and improvements in the visa regime will enable more people-to-people contacts. Notably Pakistan’s relations with China could also play into this issue, as China – for its own strategic reasons – prefers to see a tense relationship between Pakistan and India.
HY: Yes, this is not for the first time. Messages of good will between India and the PML-N have already started to be exchanged. In fact, Nawaz Sharif – when in office the last time – was punished for having extended the hand of friendship toward India beyond the limits the military establishment set for him. The army responded extremely negatively to his exclusive relationship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the Kargil war overshadowed everything. From there, the decline of Nawaz Sharif started. But it has been proven that Nawaz is very bold on his policies and might continue being so. As for Zardari, he was totally dependent on the military establishment in his foreign policy.
AR: He will definitely try and improve relations with India and the army will have to go along with that. The key thing is to get a consensus on allowing Indian investment in Pakistan for the sake of the economy.
Nawaz Sharif also has announced a plan to reduce the power of the army. Are his chances of success greater than Zardari’s?
FG: The main consequence of the election is that there will be a stable government at the centre. This means that it will be more difficult for the security establishment to manipulate it through political pressure. At the same time, the same security establishment has demonstrated over the past five years that it did not need to be part of the partisan game to control the state machinery. The somewhat new judicial activism of the Supreme Court has been widely interpreted in Pakistan as a non-political means to exercise pressure on the government. Nawaz Sharif is still vulnerable to charges of corruption as seen during the campaign. Moreover, the security establishment is a master in engineering crises when needed, in order to regain control. Nawaz Sharif will therefore have more freedom in his relations with the military than Zardari had but he will have to be careful. A process of regaining control over the military can only be incremental and its results observed over a prolonged period of time.
AR: We will have to see but he will demand a greater role in foreign policy decision making than the last government ever did and he will not allow the army to make unilateral decisions.
KF: Given the PML-N intention to maintain parliamentary oversight over all matters related to foreign, defence and national security policy, the nature of the civil-military relationship will determine the degree of resistance to be expected from the military. Wresting the formulation and determination of foreign policy from the military and making it the sole preserve of Parliament can possibly be done; to do the same with defence and security policy, however, will certainly take longer than a parliamentary term. Even so, the beginning of the process will arouse negative military responses that have the potential of vehemently disturbing the democratic process.
HY: Initially, Nawaz Sharif was basically a stooge of the military establishment against the PPP. But after the 1997 elections, he tried to change his political profile into that of a truly national figure. He paid a heavy price for this, but he will not be the same Nawaz Sharif, not a puppet in the hand of the Pakistani establishment anymore. He is not in a position to confront all stakeholders in Pakistan’s power, but rather will prefer to rule on the basis of exclusive compromises, both on the national and sub-national levels. In such a critical situation, he needs consensus rather than confrontation, in particular with the institutions he cannot overcome.
What will change for Afghanistan under a PML-N government?
FG: Probably not much. It is unclear whether the PML-N has a vision of Afghanistan fundamentally different from the one of the security establishment or what kind of political space it will enjoy on this specific issue. Moreover PML-N is in any case unlikely to confront the military directly on the issue. However, if given the chance, the PML-N might be willing to adopt a more positive approach towards Afghanistan and, initially at least, favour a rapprochement.
AR: There is a better chance of pressure from Pakistan on the Taleban to start a dialogue with the US and Kabul. The military have had the monopoly over Afghan policy throughout the term of the PPP but now, with the heavy mandate that Sharif has obtained, and his own desire to be more involved with foreign policy decision making, there will be more interlocutors, both military and civilian, to influence policy towards the Taleban. Sharif will be in a hurry to try and help out the Americans in Afghanistan by getting talks moving with the Taleban so that they can help him acquiring loans from the International Monetary Fund and other sources that Pakistan desperately needs. After many years there will be civilian input into the military’s policy towards Afghanistan and the Taleban which is a good thing.
KF: In the immediate future not much will change in Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. Pakistan’s interests are unchanged, but the preparedness of the PML-N government to strive for a more amicable relationship with less disputes that are carried out over the media and more exchanges on the personal level can more easily translate into practical political moves on the basis of Nawaz Sharif‘s massive popular mandate.
HY: Nawaz Sharif promised to initiate talks with the [Pakistani] Taleban, oppose US drone attacks and stop the NATO supplies through Pakistan. In return, the Taleban indirectly supported him in his election campaign, sparing him attacks during his campaign – while they did not allow the secular parties to conduct their election campaigns, in particular the Awami National Party, PPP and Mutahida Qaumi Movement. Now, what the scenario will be for Afghanistan remains to be seen. Probably, the level of insurgency in Pakistan may decline while Afghanistan may face more incidents for some time. The Taleban do not recognise the Pakistani constitution and do not accept the extended relations between Pakistan and the USA – but Pakistan cannot do without them. Nawaz Sharif also needs the support of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to avoid any economic collapse. It is too early to say what the reaction of the Taleban will be. But if Nawaz Sharif succeeds in keeping good relations with Saudi Arabia and prioritises it over the USA, the situation might be different. In that case, President Karzai needs extra support to face the new phase of violence in Afghanistan.
(1) Find it here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020