Two Cheers for Pakistani Democracy: A Sobering Milestone

History will be made if President Zardari's coalition lasts till elections in May — but getting there won’t be pretty

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Pakistan PID / Handout / AFP / Getty Images

Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf delivers his farewell address to the nation on March 16, 2013, in Islamabad

Pakistan passed through a unique moment in its history this past weekend. The civilian democratic government completed a full, five-year term. In the past, the elected governments were thwarted by military coups or shunted aside by subtler means. Now, for the first time, one democratically elected government may be succeeded by another. The next elections are scheduled to take place in early May.

Five years ago, few would have predicted the achievement. In that period, Pakistan experienced political crises, Taliban insurgencies, a wave of terrorism, military offensives, dangerous standoffs with India, epic national floods and a breakdown of relations with the U.S., especially after the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. There were many moments when it seemed the shaky and unpopular ruling coalition would suffer the fate of its predecessors and either collapse before serving out its term or be deposed by the country’s military.

“There’s a lot of despair regarding the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan, continuing high levels of corruption and political kowtowing to extremist elements, which makes the significance of this moment easy to overlook,” says Huma Yusuf, a policy analyst. “But 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.”

By completing a full term, many are hopeful that Pakistan has turned its back on military rule and other interruptions to democracy. “The question of who remains at the helm of power does not remain a question mark but has become an answered question,” Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s outgoing Foreign Minister, told TIME. “It should be nothing for a country to be proud of that in 66 years, there’s a peaceful democratic transition from one civilian government to another,” she added, “but because it’s the first time, it shows how much there is to be proud of.”

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But not everyone’s impressed. Even in his televised address on Saturday night, while trumpeting the occasion, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf quietly conceded that his government has also been a source of disappointment. The outgoing ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) could merely pledge to do “better next time” at its election manifesto launch.

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 antiterrorism 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. Many Pakistanis, particularly among the urban middle classes, are looking to the next elections with relief. This will be their first opportunity to try to vote out a civilian government and decide who replaces it.

At the same time, the government leaves with undeniable achievements. With only a plurality of the seats in Parliament, the PPP managed to hold together an unruly coalition with junior partners constantly breaking away and demanding greater concessions to stop it from collapsing. President Asif Ali Zardari, a much reviled figure in Pakistan, proved a shrewd dealmaker, stitching together unlikely alliances with erstwhile enemies. In a break with the past, members of the political opposition and the media were, with some exceptions, allowed to voice dissent freely. And rural voters benefited through support programs for poor families and small farmers.

In a display of political maturity, the government and the opposition were able to collaborate closely and pass three historic constitutional amendments. In the past, Pakistan’s politicians rarely let slip a chance to bring their opponents down, even if it meant opening the way for a return of military rule. A number of times, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won praise for resisting a destructive confrontation that could have triggered the collapse of the government. Whatever strong disputes he had with Zardari’s administration, Sharif insisted they should be resolved within the fold of democracy.

Some of that maturity has faded in recent days, as the politicians squabbled over who will oversee the elections. Pakistan’s constitution says a neutral caretaker government should be in place for the months of campaigning. On Monday, the main parties were still locked in negotiations.

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There were many moments when it seemed the government wouldn’t make it. Last June, former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was sacked by the Supreme Court for refusing to write a letter to Swiss authorities, urging them to reopen old corruption cases against his boss, Zardari. Ashraf, his successor, fearing the same fate, dutifully wrote the letter. He narrowly evaded arrest in January, after the court issued a warrant for his allegedly taking kickbacks in a power-project scam. In the end, the court relented and allowed Ashraf to stay in office.

Pressure also came from Pakistan’s powerful generals. When the government attempted to bring the Inter-Services Intelligence agency under civilian control, the move backfired within 24 hours. In 2009, a U.S. bill to triple nonmilitary aid was denounced by the top generals as intrusive. When, over a year ago, Gilani spoke of the hazards of having a “state within a state,” the generals publicly chastised him, warning of “potentially grievous consequences for the country.”

But under army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the generals were in no mood to snatch back direct control. From behind a thin veil, they continued to control much of foreign, defense and national-security policy, leaving the messy, day-to-day running of the country to the politicians. Kayani will be stepping down this year. If his successors let the next government also complete a full, five-year term, the door to military dictatorships may close forever — although the army will continue to jealously guard its power.

The coming elections will prove exciting and dangerous in equal measure. They will have a broader cast of characters than normal. Former cricketer Imran Khan is leading a strident campaign against corruption and U.S. drone strikes and is attracting a new generation of youth. The religious right, chastened at the last elections, is making some gains. Former military ruler Pervez Musharraf is vowing to return this month. Tahir-ul-Qadri, the rabble-rousing Sufi cleric who led protests of tens of thousands earlier this year, isn’t taking part in the elections but is taking to the streets again to denounce them.

And the terrorists have warned they will be paying close attention too. They have already threatened to target secular politicians. With this year looking like one of Pakistan’s deadliest, the fear is that the forthcoming elections could be as bloody as the last one, when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was slain.

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