Today Pakistan heads to the polls to vote for the next government, the first time there has ever been a succession of power from one civilian government to the next since the country's founding 65 years ago. The reign of the Pakistan's People Party (PPP) under Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the assassinated Benazair Bhutto, has been marred with inflation, power outages, and violence — a disastrous performance you'd expect from a guy so corrupt that his nickname is "Mr. 10%" for the cut he takes.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League Party, one of Pakistan's largest, is expected to gain the most seats by using its experience to get out the vote and mobilize patronage networks. However, former cricket player Imram Khan of of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is throwing predictions into chaos. Campaigning on the theme of "change" from the corrupt ways of the PPP and the Muslim League, Khan is likely to take much of the youth vote — a crucial advantage in a country where nearly half of all voters are under 35. If those voters turnout in significant numbers, he could be the next prime minister. Conversely, low turnout would reduce him to a junior partner role in a coalition government, if that.
And if that wasn't enough, what is being said and done on the campaign trail has numerous countries around the world concerned about Pakistan's future and their relations with it. Here are four who are impacted:
Unfortunately, America's relations with Pakistan are likely to worsen no matter the outcome of the election. Condemnation of America's influence over Pakistan's military and use of drones in the frontier provinces has solidified into mainstream consensus in the country, causing both Sharif and Khan to argue that they would protect Pakistani sovereignty and restrict, if not prevent, the further use of drones in the country. Moreover, whatever hope that existed that secular liberals could gain some power has been dashed by the massive amount of violence directed their way, with many civilians killed by bombings at political rallies and candidates assassinated on the streets. Religious persecution has, if possible, gotten even worse than before, with some Sunni candidates calling for the death of Shiites and Ahmadis. It will be a long time before U.S.-Pakistani relations thaw out.
If Afghanistan had two hopes this coming election it would be that the next government would crack down on Taliban hiding in the country and seal the border. Neither is likely to be met. Both Sharif and Khan have been courting the same fundamentalist Islamist elements that feed into terrorist networks, the latter being so supportive that he's been referred to as "Taliban Khan." No one wants to see another military coup in Pakistan, but at least the military has demanded that the Taliban submit to and acknowledge the Pakistani constitution, proclaiming their loyalty to the state. Khan wants to pull all troops out of the frontier provinces entirely, and that stance could have huge ramifications if he becomes part of a coalition government.
India will likely be both furious and disappointed about the results of the election. It will be furious that Pakistan will likely not crack down on the Islamist elements that have attacked it so often, including the horrible 2008 Mumbai incident. More than that, they will be disappointed if no party wins a strong mandate to guide Pakistan out of the mess it's in. Even though all the top parties in Pakistan say they want better relations with India, it's hard to do that when your economy has been stagnant for years, you can't keep the lights on, and violence and corruption are so pervasive that the Taliban have managed to infiltrate its largest city. Nearly 600,000 security personnel are needed to maintain public safety at the polls. Even the son of a former prime minister was kidnapped in broad daylight. Unless Pakistan gets its act together it won't be able to reap even a fraction of what it could get from cooperating with India. This kind of serious leadership is lacking even in the best of times in Pakistan, and a coalition government will only make things worse.
For the Saudi kingdom, less important than the outcome of the election may be the curious development where fundamentalist groups have been targeting Islamist parties with the same violence they've been using against the secular and pro-American groups. You'd think that being a religious party that supports the creation of an Islamic state, the insurgency in Afghanistan, as well as Taliban bases in Pakistan would keep you safe from other attacks; yet, that still is not enough for some groups, who view anyone participating in democratic processes as an apostate. Given the role Saudi Arabia plays in supporting extremist groups and religious schools in Pakistan, they may be anxiously wondering if the attacks could somehow be traced back to them and if Pakistan's rising nationalist fervor against the U.S. may somehow translate to other Muslim countries as well.
In sum, this is the most exciting election in Pakistan in years, even if there are few signs that any countries' relations with Pakistan will improve as a result, and fewer still that Pakistan might actually tackle its domestic problems for a change. Hope is scarce here. However, many have also been predicting that Pakistan was on the verge of becoming a failed state since the 1970s. That has yet to transpire. With luck, maybe Pakistan's politicians will shine and leave the country a much better place years from now than when they first took over.