Pakistan’s parliamentary elections in May will mark the first successful completion of a democratically elected government’s term in the country’s tumultuous 65-year history. That is no small feat for a country with a penchant for political disasters that invite the world’s urgent attention, from the military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 1999 to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007. (Musharraf ironically tried to get on the ballot this May but was barred from running and arrested, perhaps itself a sign of political progress.)
In a place as beleaguered as Pakistan — one riven by a war with Islamic militants within its own borders and crippled by power outages that keep its economy in the dark — a moment of optimism can have an outsize influence on the country’s future. The coming election is one such moment. How the country builds on it depends on whether Pakistan’s two main political parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), can keep legislative attention on the country’s dire economic and security straits.
At the helm of the PML-N and the PPP are former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and current President Asif Ali Zardari, respectively. Sharif is a household name from his time as prime minister (which lasted until 1999, when Musharraf ousted him), while Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, bears the burden of incumbency and allegations of corruption and ineptitude. The PML-N is favored to win a plurality of parliament seats and head the next government, early polls show.
Turnout is also expected to be high. The Election Commission of Pakistan registered 84 million new voters in 2012 (43 percent of them women).
“The critical issue is that democracy has actually been working,” Vali Nasr, a former U.S. State Department adviser on Pakistan and the current dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told The Washington Diplomat recently.
A clue that democracy is functioning in a country is often the appearance of populists who appeal to the disillusionment of large segments of the populace. In Pakistan’s case, Imran Khan, an enigmatic former cricket star, and Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, a firebrand cleric, are playing the populist part. Both Khan and Qadri have drawn crowds estimated in the hundreds of thousands with appeals to root out corruption in Pakistani politics.
Khan and Qadri are “basically pitching to the same constituency,” said Nasr, citing “elements of the middle class who want better governance.”
Though Khan and Qadri have very little chance of becoming the next prime minister, they have struck a nationalist nerve that may encourage Pakistanis to participate more in the democratic process. Their “throw out the bums” message resonates, even if the bums remain in power.
But in this tinderbox of nearly 200 million people, the civilian government is just one of many players jostling for power. The specter of Pakistan’s military always looms large, although army officials seem to be staying out of this upcoming contest, claiming their days of intervening are over. Suspicion remains that the military may still be pulling a few strings — some say the emergence of Qadri “is the latest incarnation of the military stalking-horse,” as the Economist described the candidate.
An activist judiciary has also kept politicians on their toes. In fact, Zardari barely eked out a five-year term after being pursued by the country’s chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, over a longstanding corruption case — with the prominent judge hauling two of Zardari’s prime ministers into court, forcing one of them to resign.
Even the country’s embassy in Washington hasn’t been immune to the political hornet’s nest back home. In 2011, Ambassador Husain Haqqani became embroiled in the so-called “memo-gate” scandal after a Pakistani businessman accused him of orchestrating a memo to top U.S. officials that pledged his government’s support for a raft of pro-American security policies in return for the Pentagon’s help sidelining Pakistan’s military.
Haqqani fought the charges, pointing out that he wouldn’t need a businessman with a checkered past to deliver a missive to U.S. officials with whom he was in constant contact. But amid a frenzy of conspiracy theories, threats and possible charges of treason, Haqqani went into self-imposed exile in the United States, where he currently teaches at Boston University.
His successor is also no stranger to the cutthroat machinations of Pakistani politics. Ambassador Sherry Rehman — a former parliamentarian and women’s rights advocate who was with Bhutto when she assassinated — faced death threats after pushing back against the country’s barbaric blasphemy laws; several of her colleagues who joined her were killed.
Now, another Pakistani businessman has succeeded in filing blasphemy charges against Rehman for supposedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad on a TV talk show two years ago. In a scene that would almost be comical if the stakes weren’t so high, Pakistan’s courts are often reluctant to even hear blasphemy cases — which carry the death penalty — for fear of inadvertently insulting the Prophet by repeating the original accusation, thereby risking retribution by religious zealots.
The danger of fanaticism is very real. Secular and moderate officials have been murdered for even the mere hint of insulting Islam — or just for being secular (dozens of supporters of the secular Awami National Party have been killed in Taliban attacks leading up to the election). Polio workers vaccinating children have been shot. Girls — most famously Malala Yousafzai — have been attacked for trying to go to school.
Indeed, religious hardliners are shaking the very core of Pakistani society. Sectarian and ethnic tit-for-tat killings and bombings by Islamist militants have killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis over the last decade, mostly in lawless tribal areas. More recently, gunmen have overrun the commercial hub of Karachi, where in February an estimated 100 people were slain. The Pakistani Taliban, more known for its presence in semi-autonomous regions near the border with Afghanistan, is making a bid for power in Karachi by assaulting police stations.
Some Americans say Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are reaping what they sowed by making devil’s bargains with Islamic extremists who are now turning on the government. On the flip side, Islamabad says the United States hasn’t recognized the thousands of Pakistani civilians and soldiers who’ve sacrificed their lives battling terrorists.
Regardless, whoever prevails at the polls on May 11 will inherit a near-failed security state.
So the real question is if greater popular participation in the democratic process can focus government minds on solving some of Pakistan’s chronic problems like violence and corruption. It’s unlikely one party will muster an outright majority, meaning coalitions and compromises among vastly different regional and religious parties will have to be forged.
According to Nasr, while democracy may be working in Pakistan, “the bad news is that you have the confluence of very difficult issues on the table,” he said. “One is that the domestic security situation, regardless of whose fault it is, is now out of control.”
And that is everybody’s problem, he adds. “The international community really has to use its influence to make sure that a PPP president and a PML-N government are able work together,” should the security situation deteriorate, Nasr warned. World powers simply cannot afford to put out another fire in Pakistan — a nuclear-armed nation — what with so much of the Arab world aflame.
Awkward American Bystander
Can this outside pressure for comity between Pakistani politicians credibly come from the United States? The U.S. government, perennially unpopular with the Pakistani public, wants to be seen as supportive of the democratic process regardless of who wins. This will be a tough sell, given that many Pakistanis view Washington as obsessed with counterterrorism in their country and only mildly interested in civil society, if not hostile to it. A stunning 74 percent of Pakistanis view the United States as an enemy, according to a July 2012 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center.
“We have said — and we still mean — that the democratic process is key to us,” Cameron Munter, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from 2010 to 2012, told The Diplomat recently. That many Pakistanis are skeptical of America’s claim of impartiality is “all the more reason for us to repeat it, that we’re not there to pick winners,” he said. American diplomats should drive home this point “because we actually believe that Pakistan is well served by being able to solve its problems and therefore reinforce the legitimacy of democratic government,” he added.
But how are American diplomats supposed to relay this message to a Pakistani media that would prefer to paint Washington as bent on subverting the country’s sovereignty?
“One of the things that Hillary Clinton said to me before I departed for Pakistan in 2010 [was that] she wanted to see us really engage in public diplomacy” in that country, Munter recounted.
And so American diplomats have tried to get their message out in the Pakistani press at every opportunity.
Richard Olson, Munter’s successor and the current ambassador, has “had a regular program of outreach through the electronic media and the print media” in Pakistan since his arrival in Islamabad last year, he told The Diplomat on the sidelines of his recent appearance at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.
“All of my staff are empowered to go out and talk to the media, and we’re trying to get as many technical people out to talk about” U.S. aid projects as possible, Olson said. He pointed to two hydroelectric dams that the United States is helping rebuild — one in Mangla and Tarbela — as generating goodwill among Pakistanis.
“There are 78 Pakistani electronic media outlets, so I’ve got a lot to do,” Olson said.
But the Pakistani press rarely talks about U.S.-funded dams — the project generating headlines at the moment is a proposed pipeline between Iran and Pakistan that’s widely seen as a thumb in Washington’s nose.
Moreover, an honest discussion of U.S. policy in Pakistan is not simply a matter of highlighting successful partnerships or making the rounds on the local talk shows. It might require that each side address politically unpopular issues, namely Americans officials talking publicly about the use of drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Pakistani officials vouching for benign U.S. intentions toward their civil society. This candor from each side may be unlikely, but that doesn’t make it less of a prerequisite to improving bilateral ties.
“I’d like to see as much engagement as possible by the Pakistani parties in trying to make the discussion be about how they’re going to solve problems rather than settling scores” in the coming parliamentary elections, Munter said.
As ambassador, Munter advised President Barack Obama to apologize to Islamabad after a November 2011 NATO airstrike killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers, according to a New York Times report. Obama never delivered a formal apology (though Clinton said she was sorry for the deaths a year later) and, more broadly, the United States has yet to have an open conversation about its use of drones in Pakistan, where at least some of the targeted killings likely have the tacit approval of the Pakistani government.
Shortly after resigning in 2012, Munter spoke about the controversial use of drones, which have killed thousands of militants and an untold number of civilians. Munter, who as ambassador reportedly sought to get final approval for any drone strikes on Pakistani soil, believes civilian casualties are often inflated, but that doesn’t mean he fully embraces the covert program. “The use of drones is a good way to fight the war. But you’re going to kill drones if you’re not using them judiciously,” he told the Daily Beast’s Tara McKelvey. “The problem is the political fallout,” he said. “Do you want to win a few battles and lose the war?”
Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, echoes that argument, telling reporters earlier this year that drones are illegal and doing more harm than good by breeding anti-American extremism in Pakistan’s tribal belt.
American refusal to publicly acknowledge a drone program that has taken the lives of perhaps hundreds of Pakistani civilians is one reason why Pakistanis are so loath to give Washington the benefit of the doubt in its dealings with Islamabad. It does not take a conspiracy theorist to come to the conclusion that American policy toward Pakistan is one of preemptive strike first and ask questions later.
Haqqani, Pakistan’s former envoy to the U.S., even argues that the two sides should just stop the charade that they’re partners and only work together on areas where their strategic interests align. “Each country accuses the other of being a terrible ally — and perhaps both are right,” he wrote in the Foreign Affairs essay “Breaking Up Is Not Hard to Do.”
“At this point, instead of continuing to fight so constantly for so little benefit … the two countries should acknowledge that their interests simply do not converge enough to make them strong partners. By coming to terms with this reality, Washington would be freer to explore new ways of pressuring Pakistan and achieving its own goals in the region. Islamabad, meanwhile, could finally pursue its regional ambitions, which would either succeed once and for all or, more likely, teach Pakistani officials the limitations of their country’s power,” he wrote.
But other veterans of the bilateral relationship aren’t ready to go quite that far. For Munter, effective public communication between the two countries is about having “a common story to tell” with Pakistanis, a narrative built from the two countries’ shared foe in Islamic extremism. “One of the hard things about what happened in 2011 was that the trust between not only the people of our countries, the trust between the institutions that are fighting … the common enemy … was undercut by what happened during that year,” he said.
Munter was presumably referring to the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011, and the detention by Pakistani authorities of Raymond Davis, a CIA agent accused of killing two Pakistanis in January of that year. The two incidents plummeted U.S.-Pakistani relations to what many observers see as an all-time low.
In his recent public appearance in Washington, Ambassador Olson made the case that the bilateral relationship was back from that abysmal brink.
“I think that both sides recognize that in the past we’ve had a relationship that tended to go in cycles,” he said at the Stimson Center event. “We want to get the relationship on more stable footing, an even keel. And I think the way to do that is to work hard to identify common interests and work along the basis of mutual respect,” Olson said.
An unconventional place to start in identifying common interests might be the development of a healthier democracy in Pakistan. For now, Pakistani generals and American officials are at least saying publicly that this is a common goal.
About the Author
Sean Lyngaas is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.