Last weekend’s general elections in Pakistan are significant for a variety of reasons. For the first time in the country’s history—and, unless the unexpected happens—there were will be a democratic transition of power from one civilian government to another one.
The vote was the clearest demonstration of the country’s young, vibrant civil society and private media, which can trump political corruption and the ever-looming specter of militant violence. Despite Taliban threats to disrupt the elections—bomb attacks across the country killed more than twenty people—there was record turnout.
These elections were also faithful to Pakistan’s tradition of diversity when it comes to contenders. From former popular cricketer Imran Khan to actress and former model Musarrat Shaheen, and from radical Sunni cleric Ahmed Ludhianvi to the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, A. Q. Khan, the variety of agendas and political programs is in itself a remarkable sign of a thriving democracy.
The responsibility of forming a government will fall on the shoulders of the two-time former prime minister and steel tycoon Nawaz Sharif, along with his Muslim League. The challenges his new government faces are many and varied. These include an economic crisis—Sharif needs to urgently strike a deal with the IMF to overcome a serious budget crisis—and the country’s calamitous infrastructure.
But one issue in particular, that of violent conflict, will continue to haunt the nation’s efforts to escape from its recent, troubled past.
So far, the change of government is showing some promise on this front. During the electoral campaign, Sharif declared his commitment to put an end to the scourge of militant violence. He has expressed concern about the US drone campaign in the tribal areas (which is not surprising, given his strong nationalistic credentials) and the internal hostility it generated towards the Pakistani government. He has also been vocal about the need to reach out to India, make peace with the Taliban, and pacify the border with Afghanistan, although he has made no substantial declarations on the ongoing insurgency and sectarian violence in Baluchistan, the country’s western province.
But there is a long way from words to deeds. The Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) control foreign and defense policy. Their allegiance to the central government remains in doubt. It was the army, at the time led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew Sharif in 1999.
These two entities are a state within the state. They are obsessed with India and its potential influence in Afghanistan, and will continue to feed this obsession while Kashmir’s borders remain contested. Equally destabilizing are the close relations that many elements of the army and the ISI maintain with Islamic militants across the country, who the former see as an informal army to be used in the event of war with India and a tool to exert influence over developments in neighboring Afghanistan.
Unless the roots causes of the various conflicts, at home and in the region, are addressed, Pakistan will continue to be a nation at war with itself, living in a daily state of emergency.