Sharif Must Square the Circle

Pakistan's democratic milestone needs to be followed up by getting control of the national-security state.

Pakistan’s national election that concluded last Saturday is indeed historic for its 180 million citizens. Since its creation in 1947, this is the first time that a civilian government has completed its five-year term and stepped down with no intervention from the army, thereby paving the way for a democratic decision through the ballot box, not the bayonet.

The PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz), led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has emerged as the single largest party, bagging at least 126 seats out of 272 that were contested. The 342-member National Assembly, Pakistan’s lower house, is made up of 272 elected representatives and seventy who are nominated from among religious minorities and women. The latter seats are allotted to parties based on their electoral performance, and thus the PML-N is thus set to form the next government in Islamabad with the help of a few independents.

Tragically, the run up to the elections was marred by a series of deliberate killings and violence led by the Pakistan Taliban, which targeted parties and political leaders alleged to be too “secular.” Thus the three parties that suffered the most were the PPP (Peoples Party of Pakistan), the MQM (Muttahida Quami Movement) and the ANP (Awami National Party). The PML-N sought a political accommodation with the right wing and hence was not intimidated.

In an unrelated incident, popular cricketer turned politician Imran Khan sustained a serious fall on May 7 in an election rally in Lahore and this generated a wave of sympathy for this national icon and his fledgling party, the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf). This party was also spared the wrath of the Taliban, as it is perceived to be right of center when it comes to Islam. Despite grand assertions by Khan that the PTI would create a political tsunami, the social-media hype did not translate into an electoral advantage for the PTI, which is relatively new and lacks the grassroots base that the other major political parties enjoy.

Nawaz Sharif will create yet another milestone in the annals of Pakistan’s troubled political trajectory when he is sworn in as prime minister for a record third time. In an ironic twist, General Pervez Musharraf—the former army chief and military ruler who had deposed Sharif in a coup in October 1999 and then forced him into exile in Saudi Arabia for eight years—is now under house arrest, and his PML-Q party gained just two seats. This troubled civil-military relationship is part of a bloody history that also saw Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a former prime minister, sent to the gallows by military dictator General Zia ul Haq.

Sharif will inherit a complex spectrum of challenges that include dealing with the domestic terror that the Pakistan Taliban has unleashed against the state. (The Taliban is against democracy and elections, which they deem un-Islamic.) Then there is the weak economy—forex reserves are down to six weeks, unrelenting sectarian violence continues by the dominant Sunni groups against the Shia and religious minorities such as Hindus and Christians, and there is a severe power shortage. And that is only the tip of the iceberg.

The civil-military relationship remains tenuous. Despite Sharif’s post-victory assertion (to an Indian TV channel) that he is the “boss” and not the army chief, most Pakistanis still view Rawalpindi, which houses the army’s headquarters, as a more powerful place than Islamabad, the capital and seat of the National Assembly.

Yet the elements that are central to Pakistan’s strategic relevance for the region and the world—the Pakistani Army’s support to terror groups and the management of the nuclear weapon and related missile capability—will continue to be outside the purview of Pakistan’s civilian leadership.

Traditionally these two elements have been under the sole control of the Pakistan Army and in the past both Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto chafed in vain for being kept out of the loop, even though they were the elected civilian leaders. Related to these two military capabilities is the orientation of Pakistan’s relations with India, Afghanistan, the United States and China—which means they are also determined by the Army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi.

In the run-up to the election the anti-American and antidrone tack was emotively exploited by the PML-N and the PTI. Both Sharif and Khan pledged to distance Pakistan from the U.S. war on terror. To obtain the support of the religious right wing, these parties have systematically sought to appease the Pak Taliban and groups wedded to extremist terror ideology—and in the long run this will be a Faustian bargain for the new government.

Prior to the election, the Pakistan Army chief, General Pervez Kayani, had identified the scourge of domestic terror unleashed by the Pak Taliban and its affiliates as the real threat to the country. But the political leadership remained wary of committing itself in the run-up to the election, for Islam is a very powerful factor in the prevailing polity of Pakistan. It’s worth recalling that Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab province, was assassinated by his own personal bodyguard in January 2011 for a perceived blasphemy transgression. How Sharif deals with this distorted but deeply entrenched ideology that pursues wanton killing of the “infidel” in the name of Islam will be a complex domestic challenge.