*This article originally appeared in Muftah.org and has been republished with permission.
Founded in 1947, Pakistan has traveled a troublesome road.
For approximately thirty-five of its sixty-six years in existence, four different military dictatorships have ruled the country.
Even under civilian rule, the country has been gripped by political instability, with governments subject to intrigues and interventions by Pakistan’s powerful military establishment.
In light of the Arab Spring, many Arab nations have been compared to the country, especially regarding the military’s involvement in politics.
Nevertheless, despite Pakistan’s many challenges, there has been a lack of attention to contemporary developments in the country, which represent nothing less than a silent revolution.
Pakistan is in transformation.
Democratic Political Evolution:
In 2008, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was elected to office. The civilian government brought an end to the military dictatorship of then Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf, which had started nearly a decade earlier.
Five years later, in May 2013, Pakistan held its next scheduled round of parliamentary elections, making the PPP the first democratically-elected civilian government in the country’s history to complete its full term.
While this was an important milestone, it was also a bittersweet moment of reflection for ordinary Pakistani citizens.
An excerpt from Omar Waraich’s TIME’s article “Two Cheers for Pakistani Democracy: A Sobering Milestone” may help in explaining these sentiments:
‘Public resentment has been fed by an endless litany of problems: enduring power shortages (up to 18 hours a day at the peak of summer); the failure to curb terrorist attacks, protect religious minorities and formulate a coherent anti-terrorism strategy; a slow and weak response to the floods; sluggish economic growth, a bloated public sector, cresting inflation; and tales of legendary corruption, carving out private fortunes from a treasury to which they scandalously pay little in tax
In the words of Huma Yusuf, a Pakistani policy analyst: “It’s a true milestone that signals an emerging consensus that democracy is the right governing system for Pakistan. There’s a long way yet to go.”
Having suffered greatly under the previous administration, Pakistanis jumped at the opportunity to vote the incumbent PPP government out during the elections held on May 11. Recording an impressive voter turn-out of 55%, the contest set Pakistan on a new path.
The elections were largely peaceful with the EU Mission finding that 90% of polling stations exhibited satisfactory electoral conduct.
Braving security risks, terrorist threats, the sweltering heat of May and an entrenched sense of indifference, the people boldly gave their vote of confidence to democracy. In doing so, they rejected and repudiated perceptions that countries like Pakistan are ‘not ready for democracy’.
An unprecedented feat, the elections marked the peaceful transition from one elected government to another. In the process, these events resulted in a notable win for the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, the party head and former twice-elected prime minister, was elected prime minister for the third time.
The PML-N is generally seen as a moderate party. Before being ousted by General Pervez Musharraf in the coup of 1999, it was previously voted into power in 1990 and 1997, and it is, to date, the only party in the history of the country to have a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Since the coup, it has reiterated its commitment to democracy and complete opposition to any undemocratic intervention in Pakistan’s politics and government.
A number of misconceptions about Pakistan’s state structure must be clarified to understand the changes currently occurring in the country as well as its democratic, political and social development.
In contrast to popular assumptions, with only one exception, Pakistanis have never elected an Islamist government or been ruled by Islamists. General Zia-ul-Haq, a military dictator without electoral legitimacy who ruled from 1978 until his death in an air crash 1988, is the one aberration.
While religious parties have wielded great power at the grassroots level and mastered the art of populist rhetoric, they have managed to grab only a meager amount of votes in elections.
This might explain the eagerness of religious parties in Pakistan to offer their services to military-run governments, which represent their best chance of sharing in governance processes.
Along with having vital, functioning state institutions, since the 1970s, Pakistan has had a proper, popularly accepted constitution in place, although numerous military interventions in politics have prevented its proper implementation from occurring. In recent years however the activist judiciary and media have resulted in greater accountability towards the ideals the constitution upholds.
In contrast to the gloom and doom that many believe indefinitely prevails in the country, Pakistan today hosts a vibrant, free, and fledgling independent print and electronic media; an active judiciary that respects the importance of the rule of law; an army that has begun to receive scrutiny and that has, at least ostensibly, taken a back-seat in politics; a robust opposition in parliament; and a vigilant network of citizens on social media who generously indulge in the country’s relative freedom of expression.
Pakistanis are also looking forward to the trial of Musharraf, under house arrest since his return this year on charges of deposing and arresting the judiciary in 2007 (in response to which the Movement for the Restoration of the Judiciary, popularly known as the Lawyers’ Movement, which ran from 2007 to 2009). He is also to face justice in connection with the murder of both Benazir Bhutto and the Baloch leader, Akbar Bugti; both cases in which he has been named the prime suspect.
Pakistan is a country that is continually learning the prerequisites for successful democracy: consensus-building, collaboration, dialogue, and inclusiveness.
This developing view can be seen in the country’s eighteenth constitutional amendment. Passed in 2012, the new law curbed the president’s sweeping powers to unilaterally dissolve the parliament, which had caused much havoc in the preceding years.
Population and Social Characteristics:
Pakistan enjoys massive human capital that has heretofore been hindered by political crises and widespread unemployment.
It is home to a population of 190 million people. Seventy million of these individuals are part of the country’s middle class, while 16 million have access to the Internet. 67.1% of Pakistanis are below the age of thirty.
The country is urbanizing at the fastest rate in South Asia. Half the population will live in cities by 2025, up one-third from current figures.
Pakistan has a burgeoning textile industry and immense potential to be an emerging market. It has women who serve both on political and combat frontlines and has produced a Nobel Laureate and two Oscar winners.
Conclusion: A Difficult Country
Yet side by side with these signs of success are the other, alarming aspects of Pakistan’s character.
Today, the country stands at the convergence of many grave social, political, and economic issues. It faces challenges from the dual monstrosity that is terrorism and extremism; an acute imbalance between military-civilian relations; corruption and venality; an economic breakdown; societal decadence; bureaucratic infighting; and hurdles in its geopolitical relations.
Just as the Arab world is in the throes of revolution and rebellion today, Pakistan also seeks a break from its own past, which is riddled with instability, uncertainty, contempt of law, and dictatorial violations of the sanctity and soul of the country.
This year’s democratic transition brings with it the hope that Pakistan will finally close the chapter on its history of military intervention in politics. It also indicates the emergence of a democratic culture in a place where the rule of law had long been subordinate.
Pakistan’s new government may not entirely cure its problems but that these historic elections have occurred is an achievement in itself. Indeed, it represents a much-needed first step in the right direction.
The world should embrace Pakistan as it finally embraces democracy.
~ Hafsa Khawaja