The successful completion of Pakistan’s parliamentary elections leading to the emergence of Nawaz Sharif as the country’s next prime minister is a moment worth cherishing. The elections on May 11 took place in the midst of a vulnerable security environment. Surrounded by not just fears of militant attacks but also cases of violence, the election campaign will be remembered for long as one of the bloodiest in Pakistan’s history.
Even the eventual prize of the first transition from one elected government to another without the footprint of the military, though historic in character, cannot ignore the powerful reality of militancy that plagues Pakistan today.
It is therefore hardly surprising Sharif has begun his tenure with promises of tackling militancy as one of his two top priorities, with reinvigorating the economy being the other.
Following the elections, the sanctity of the electoral process has been questioned in parts of Karachi as well as in parts of the populous Punjab province. Since the elections, political parties, notably the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) led by cricketing legend Imran Khan, have campaigned to raise doubts over the credibility of the electoral process.
These protests have been driven in part by graphic evidence in cases such as that of Fakhr Imam, the former speaker of the lower house of parliament known as the National Assembly. Some of Imam’s supporters have captured graphic video evidence of irregularities in his constituency on the polling day.
Elsewhere too, complaints have emanated from rival politicians including some belonging to Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The net result of these claims is indeed a concerted push to create the impression that the elections were far from clean.
Yet, going forward, it would be a folly to ignore the compelling reality of the long-awaited democratic journey that Pakistan has embarked upon. Protests, which squarely play down the sanctity of the polls across the board, are a powerful reminder of Pakistan’s tragic history.
In 1977, politicians opposed to the late prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto launched a series of vigorous street protests shortly after refusing to accept the outcome of elections that year. A failure by the government and the opposition to resolve their differences ultimately provoked an army takeover led by General Zia ul Haq. The general, who promised to remain in power for no more than 90 days, eventually ran Pakistan for 11 long years.
Given that General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the present army chief, has repeatedly indicated his intent to keep the army out of politics, there is no indication of the army positioning itself to seize power. Yet, for any of the mainstream politicians, the idea of kicking off a prolonged series of protests indeed risks such an intervention, especially if the country eventually becomes paralysed.
In the interest of Pakistan’s future political stability, it is paramount for mainstream political parties led by the country’s newly elected politicians, to converge as quickly as possible to settle their differences. They must keep their eye on the ball by conceding ground wherever necessary in the interest of improving stability. If settling the dispute via fresh polls in a selected few constituencies is the only way forward, so be it.
With elections now out of the way, there is a much bigger task which lies ahead. Acknowledged by Sharif as his top two priorities, Pakistan’s elected politicians need to get down to focusing on these two matters as never before. The responsibility upon the new politicians is all the more in view of recent trends.
The past five years may have seen a democratic government elected in 2008, serve time in office. But at the same time, Pakistan’s outlook has only aggravated thanks to a wide ranging neglect of some of the key challenges faced by the country. Sharif’s victory has been accompanied by a robust increase in share prices on the Karachi Stock Exchange — the main barometer of business confidence.
For many businessmen, Sharif’s victory may well mark the first vital step towards rebuilding confidence in Pakistan’s economy. The next prime minister, to his credit, brings along a track record of overseeing robust government action in areas such as building large infrastructure projects as an essential centre piece for promoting investments. But without political peace returning to Pakistan after the elections, prospects for an economic uptick will just remain a distant dream.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.