The Power of the Ballot: Political Transition in Pakistan

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By Jumaina Siddiqui – Pakistan’s parliamentary elections on February 18th provided observers around the world with many surprises.  Contrary to expectations, the Pakistani Taliban Movement did not engage in violence.  The possibility of wide-spread election rigging was of great concern, but did not occur on a large scale.  High-profile election observers like Senators John Kerry and Joseph Biden were cautiously optimistic about the day’s events, noting that the elections passed the “basic threshold of credibility and legitimacy.”   The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) emerged as the victors with almost 60% of the seats combined, in an election considered a referendum on President Musharraf’s administration.  PPP expected it could win enough seats to be the sole ruling party, believing that a sympathy vote would carry them to victory, but they only won 33% of the seats in the National Assembly.  PML-N finished in second, winning 26% of the seats, and President Musharraf’s PML faction, the PML-Q, finished third with 15%.  The two winning parties are in the process of forming a consensus government, reaching out to other political parties and pledging to work together to bring democracy to Pakistan.  However, many are skeptical about the length and strength of the relationship.  

Tension between the two parties could arise from Asif Zardari’s and Nawaz Sharif’s differing views on the restoration of the judiciary.  Sharif has publicly supported the ousted Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, as the rightful head of the Supreme Court, but Zardari has only called for the release of deposed judges, including the Chief Justice, but not specifically for the restoration of the judiciary to its pre-November 3rd status.  With the judiciary being the second most respected institution in Pakistan, after the media, the view of Pakistanis is that if the judiciary is not restored, the will of the people will be incomplete.  

The other major issue driving the political debate in Pakistan is the candidate for Prime Minister.  Both the PPP and PML-N have strong candidates in Makhdoom Amin Fahim and Javed Hashmi, respectively.  However, with PPP as the lead party in the consensus government, it is likely that Fahim will be the next Prime Minister.  Fahim is a loyal PPP member and current vice-chairman of the PPP who stewarded the party while Benazir Bhutto was in exiled.  His name was mentioned for chairmanship of the PPP after Bhutto’s assassination in December; however the position was ultimately given to Zardari, per Bhutto’s political will.  

While the international community has pushed for the PPP and PML-N to work with Musharraf and the PML-Q, it is doubtful that they will welcome the routed party with open arms.  The PML-Q has accepted its position as the opposition party and will take their seats in National Assembly as such.  The animosity towards the PML-Q has been reinforced by calls for Musharraf’s resignation by both Sharif and Zardari.  Whether Musharraf will resign or be impeached by the incoming National Assembly is uncertain.  What is clear, however, is that Musharraf’s precarious position will make it difficult for him to work with the new parliament, creating conditions for further instability in Pakistan, especially if the National Assembly decides to move forward with impeachment proceedings.  

The international community, particularly the United States and England, were greatly invested in elections and considered the outcome to have consequences for the conduct of counterterrorism cooperation with Islamabad.  The US Ambassador to Pakistan and the British High Commissioner in Pakistan met with Zardari and Sharif after the elections, encouraging them to work with President Musharraf.  This has been seen by many in Pakistan as another case of interference by outside forces in internal Pakistani affairs, especially given Musharraf’s past dealings with the United States and his perceived status as a puppet of the US.  Any further meetings with international diplomats prior to the formation of the government could hurt Zardari’s and Sharif’s credibility with the Pakistani public.

Election observers noted that even though the 35 to 45 percent voter turnout was consistent with numbers from previous elections, the environment in which these polls were held was far from democratic.  The perceived security threat kept many voters away from the polls, in addition to the political environment prior to the elections, especially the suppression of freedoms of press and mobilization.  Pakistani voters knew the stakes were high in this election.  This turnout, however, does not reflect the same passion and desire for change that was displayed in the protests during the state of emergency.  It begs the question, are the election results an accurate representation of the will of the people?  

As a new government is formed in the upcoming weeks, it is certain that the trajectory of Pakistan will change.  While achieving full democracy in Pakistan will take time, the outcome of this election signals a positive transition towards democracy. 

Jumaina Siddiqui is a Research Associate with the Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges project.

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