The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is not a place where visitors expect to see billboards advertising “Liposuction, Tummy Tuck, Breast Reshaping” for middle-class women, let alone brothels to entertain middle-class men in a red-light district near the main mosque. They are both there in the sprawling commercial city of Lahore.
Nor is Pakistan a country where foreigners wary of religious extremism would necessarily envisage a politically correct gender studies centre such as the one at Quaid-i-Azam University in the capital Islamabad — where students, male and female, discuss everything from honour killings to reproductive rights.
To say that Pakistan has an image problem in the West is an understatement. A new Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute for Economics and Peace shows that Pakistan comes second only to Iraq in terms of terrorist violence because of “significant and widespread” attacks, mostly bombings and shootings. (Pakistan’s neighbours, Afghanistan and India, come third and fourth.)
Yet Pakistan is more diverse than outsiders tend to think and the beliefs of its 180 million people are more heterogeneous than in many other nations that profess themselves Islamic. Women hold positions of power in politics, business and academia; and those who might be categorised as religious extremists have never won more than 12 per cent of the vote in a general election.
And now the country is preparing for a political event hailed by Pakistanis and their foreign allies alike as a democratic coming-of-age: for the first time since partition from India in 1947, an elected government is expected to complete a full term in office and make way for a new administration, also democratically elected.
The hope is that the armed forces will not intervene directly or indirectly as they have so often in the past. That would allow a fairly conventional democratic process to unfold, which would contribute to the stability not only of nuclear-armed Pakistan — the world’s sixth most populous nation — but also of the rest of south and central Asia just as Western forces prepare to leave Afghanistan.
“It really doesn’t matter what the outcome of this election is, as long as it’s held in a credible, democratic manner,” says Samina Ahmad, south Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, an organisation that studies and seeks to resolve conflicts around the world. “These past four and a half years have been the first phase of a very fragile democratic transition.
You already see a change, not necessarily in the balance of power between the civilians and the military, but in a questioning of the military ... This is now a public debate, and it is taking place within parliament and outside parliament.”
No Pakistani, or foreign observer in Islamabad, suggests that it will be easy to build a credible democracy in such a violent, unstable and overpopulated country. Successive governments — including the present one under Asif Ali Zardari, the president whose wife Benazir Bhutto was assassinated five years ago — have become notorious for a combination of untrammelled corruption and economic mismanagement.
The army and the intelligence services, meanwhile, are accused either of complicity in religious terrorism (especially across the border in Afghanistan), or of incompetence in combating extremists, or both — a set of accusations only strengthened by the killing of Osama Bin Laden by United States’ special forces north of Islamabad in 2011.
“Today, we are living through the decisive moments of our history,” General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, head of the Pakistani army, said in a gloomy speech in August to mark the 65th anniversary of independence. “Disillusionment, desperation, religious bigotry, political disharmony and discord seem to permeate our lives.”
A successful election — the vote is expected between mid-March and mid-May — might help to dispel that sense of foreboding. Ahmad compares Pakistan’s situation after years of violence to Latin American countries such as Argentina as they emerged from military rule in the 1980s. “Where we’re at is the earliest phase of a Chile,” she says, meaning when the rule of law was weak and the armed forces still powerful.
Democracy in Pakistan — according to one Western diplomat who draws comparisons not with South America but with the Middle East — is far from perfect but more developed than it is in Egypt. “At a time when democracy in other parts of the Muslim world is running into problems ... there is something consolidating here against all the odds,” the diplomat says. “Something quite significant is happening here.”
The mere fact of a government finishing its allotted term and facing new elections is important, another Pakistan-based diplomat says. “It’s very hard for the outside world to understand how important that’s going to be ... It changes intangibly the calculations of politicians and the military.”
Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, Zardari’s prime minister, boasts that the imminent completion of its term by the government of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is a “great achievement”. Flanked by photographs of the party’s martyrs — the slain Bhutto and of her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the prime minister executed by General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1979 — he says: “This is the first time in history that the media is independent, the judiciary is independent, democracy is taking root, and elections are around the corner.”
Wishful thinking? Commentators argue that tentative optimism is well-founded because the cautious General Kayani does not want to intervene, the politicians out of power are not keen to invite him and the judges have been discouraged from lending legal support to any coup d’état by changes to the constitution since Zardari won the election in 2008.
“There’s no room for a military takeover, none whatsoever,” says Shahbaz Sharif of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). He is younger brother of PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif and chief minister of Punjab, the country’s most populous and economically dominant state.
Pakistanis are eager to oust the PPP government through democratic means, he says, and the armed forces know in any case that a military takeover is no solution.
One sign of Pakistan’s maturing democracy is the political rise in recent years of Imran Khan, the successful Pakistani cricketer who has entered politics to challenge the dominant duo of the PPP and the PML-N.
“Pakistan is passing through its worst time,” he said recently on a visit to India. “But I also see this as the best of times, because when we see such crises, there’s a desire for change ... We represent change. People are fed up with the old political parties.”
Khan has campaigned against US drone attacks aimed at militants on the Pakistani border with Afghanistan, not only because they kill civilians but also because they promote rather than prevent extremism in Pakistan. His moderate party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI — Movement for Justice) is popular among young, middle-class voters, and although support seems to have waned over recent months, it could hold the balance of power after the next election.
Any analysis of Pakistani politics needs two important qualifications. First, the way government functions — or fails to function — is barely comparable with the genteel democracy practised today in the West.
As Anatol Lieven remarks in his book “Pakistan: A Hard Country” the system revolves around patronage and clan loyalties, and there has been surprisingly little difference between Pakistan’s civilian regimes and its military ones.
The second point to emphasise is that democratisation is constantly threatened by the sheer scale of the domestic political, religious and economic difficulties, not to mention the risk of further instability in neighbouring Afghanistan and Iran.
Extremists have with impunity attacked Shiites, Christians, Hindus and other Sunnis, in a country where tolerant, middle-aged Muslims recall childhoods when they neither knew nor cared which sect their friends and neighbours belonged to.
An attempt in October by the Pakistani Taliban to murder Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl who campaigned for girls’ education, did provoke a series of outraged public protests against extremists, but the popular backlash shows no sign of bringing such violence to an end.
The murder of eight health workers administering polio vaccines in December has also drawn international attention to the virulence of extremists in Pakistan.
“The Malala incident is an eye-opener,” says P.J. Mir, a prominent television presenter. “Everybody hates terrorism in this country. Everybody despises the brutality of these people. [But] the Supreme Court of this country, has it convicted even one terrorist?”
Judges, he says, are too frightened to act, the Pakistani economy is in “meltdown” and politics is about money and family rather than real democracy.
As for elections: “It won’t make any difference. It will be the same people, the status quo, and then the military will move in. There has to be a coup.”
Few Pakistanis dispute that the weakness of the economy is a source of fragility, that drastic electricity shortages stoke public anger, or that corruption is worsening further as the election approaches. A few investors, foreign and Pakistani, look back to the decade-long military rule of Pervez Musharraf, which ended in 2008, as a kind of golden age of growth and prudent decision-making.
But even General Musharraf will wear civilian clothes if — as he hopes — he is able to return from exile to join the political fray. And even business leaders appalled by the state of the economy now hesitate to recommend military intervention in modern Pakistan.
Azam Saigol, managing director of the Lahore-based Saigols conglomerate, which has interests in textiles and electrical equipment, is scathing about the performance of the present elected government. He dismisses its members as landlords who do not understand economic management. “Overall, of course, it’s a shambles. It’s entirely unmanaged,” he says.
“But,” he adds, “I don’t back this policy of the military stepping in every now and then. I feel it’s better to go through this democratic process — even with the setbacks and the ups and downs.” Millions of Pakistanis agree.
The question now is whether the three groups who wield most power — the politicians, the generals and the religious extremists — will allow those hopes to be fulfilled.