Pakistan’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party government recently became the first in the country’s history to complete a full five-year term in office. Every previous civilian government had ended before its time, some deposed by the army acting behind the scenes, others through outright military coups.
During the current era in Pakistani politics, beginning with the death of military dictator Zia ul-Haq in 1988, three successive civilian governments (two led by Benazir Bhutto, the other by Pakistan Muslim League party leader Nawaz Sharif) were brought to premature conclusions due to army interference in the political process. In all three instances, the army persuaded the largely figurehead president of Pakistan at the time to dismiss the sitting government, taking advantage of a constitutional amendment introduced by Zia giving the president such authority.
When this amendment was repealed by Nawaz Sharif in 1997, at the beginning of his second term as prime minister, the army had no choice but to let him serve out his full five-year term or remove him from office through a coup. It ended up opting for the latter. The army chief who carried out the coup, Pervez Musharraf, ruled the country until the 2008 elections that brought the PPP-led government, headed by Asif Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, to power.
Many observers, including those inside Pakistan, have hailed the success of the Zardari government in serving out its entire term as a significant victory for Pakistani democracy. But though there are genuine grounds for optimism, it is important to recognize that the Zardari government did not survive because it did a better job of governing than its deposed predecessors. Each of those governments ran into serious economic trouble early on in their tenure and frittered away most of the popularity that had brought them to power. It is no accident that their removal by the army acting behind the scenes attracted strong popular support. The Pakistani people may be long suffering, but they are also impatient. Thus, the opposition party succeeded in easily winning the elections that were held after the army interventions. The 1999 Musharraf coup was, if anything, even more popular.
It appears that even if given a full term to carry out its electoral mandate, an elected Pakistani government is incapable of delivering anything remotely resembling good government. The may be due to the very nature of Pakistani political culture. The current Pakistani political system is dominated by wealthy landowners, popularly known as feudals, and their rich industrialist counterparts. Together they practice a distinctive form of patronage politics: their goal in seeking public office is to gain access to state resources, which can then be shared among their members.
When in power, feudal Pakistani politicians are so narrowly focused on the dispensing and consumption of patronage that they have little time or interest in dealing with the myriad systemic problems that plague the country. Their lack of interest in the long-term welfare of their country is reflected, for example, in the fact that hardly any of them pay income taxes. Their political default setting is to kick serious problems down the road. The situation is so bad that, despite the fact that Pakistan spends hardly any money on public education or health, and possesses no social safety net to speak of, it is still deeply and chronically in debt.
So how did the Zardari government manage to serve out its full five year term? The bottom line is that the army, although sorely tempted on several occasions, was not prepared to carry out another coup. Since early 2004, the army has had its hands full combating a major Pakistani Taliban insurgency in the tribal areas and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It apparently had little stomach for adding the running of the country to its current list of woes.
Even more importantly, the army’s last experiment in governance during the Musharraf era was widely perceived as an unmitigated failure, including within the army itself. Not only did Musharraf end up doing just as bad a job of governing as his civilian predecessors, his decision to ally with the United States in the war on terror proved to be highly unpopular with the Pakistani public. This has made the current army leadership, which places great stock in its public image, extremely reluctant to try its hand again anytime soon. In addition, ordinary Pakistanis seem to have finally recognized that, however incompetent their civilian rulers might be, the army is not the answer.
The current favorite to win the upcoming elections, scheduled for May 11, is the PML party of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister whom Musharraf deposed in 1999. Nawaz unfortunately combines the worst instincts of a narrowly focused patronage politician with a ruthless authoritarian temperament. During his previous tenure in office, he made the mistake of firing two army chiefs within a single calendar year. This makes him the odds-on favorite for the title of future Pakistani prime minister most likely to be removed by an army coup. The army may have decided that it is prepared to live with bad governance, but it is unlikely to sit still at any renewed efforts by Nawaz to destroy its institutional independence.
The biggest wild card in the May 11 elections is the emergence of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, led by Imran Khan. The handsome, charismatic Imran is a former cricket star and by far the greatest sports hero in Pakistani history. His party, which had languished in the wilderness during the first decade after its founding, suddenly emerged on the national scene following massive rallies in Lahore and Karachi in late 2011 that attracted legions of young people. Imran promised to unleash a "tsunami" that would sweep away the corrupt and incompetent patronage-based parties that have dominated Pakistani politics since the death of Zia.
Despite the big crowds, however, it is unclear how well the PTI will fare at the ballot box. Recent public-opinion polls suggest that it enjoys a level of nationwide support comparable to that of the PML and PPP. But it lacks the elaborate and well organized patronage networks of the traditional feudal parties, which are highly effective in turning out the vote. This has long been the primary difference maker in the hardscrabble of Pakistani politics.
However well or poorly the PTI does on May 11, its emergence into the political mainstream illustrates that a significant number of Pakistanis, particularly among the young, have become fed up with patronage politics as usual. It is this, rather than the success of the Zardari government in serving out a full five-year term, that offers some small hope for the future of Pakistani democracy. This could either result in the political tsunami Imran talks about or generate only a small and temporary ripple in the Pakistani body politic—only time will tell.
Imran has already felt the need to bring feudal politicians into his ranks in the hope of tapping into their patronage vote banks. And even if he did someday manage to win power, it would be a herculean task for anyone to break the stranglehold on Pakistani political and economic life enjoyed by the landowning and industrial elite—much less implement anything resembling meaningful systemic change. Even the army, whose constant interference in Pakistani politics has made a bad situation that much worse, has never tried to destroy or otherwise dispossess the traditional landowning aristocracy.
If Pakistan were just another Podunk third world country choking to death on its economic and democratic failures, that would be one thing. But unfortunately, Pakistan is also a nuclear weapons armed state that both supports, and is at war with, a variety of radical Islamic groups. What happens there clearly matters. And in this respect even Imran Khan offers very little to root for. He is openly hostile to the United States, has flirted with fundamentalist Pakistani religious parties who share his antipathy toward the feudal political establishment, and appears to favor a conciliatory policy toward the Pakistani Taliban and other radical Islamic groups.
Unfortunately, there is probably very little that the United States or any outsider can do about all this. It can threaten or cajole, offer or renege, all of which it has done many times in the past, to little or no avail. Unfortunately but perhaps inevitably, it is the Pakistani people themselves who will determine what kind of political system they live under and what kind of figure they cut in the world. Viewed against this backdrop, the success of the Zardari government in finishing out its full five year term of office constitutes only very modest grounds for optimism. It could easily end up being little more than a speed bump on Pakistan's current one-way trip to Palookaville.
John R. Schmidt teaches at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. He served in senior positions in the State Department during a 30-year foreign service career, including as political counselor in the U.S. embassy in Islamabad in the three years leading up to 9/11. He is the author of The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad.