Pakistanis went to the polls on Saturday to cast their ballots in an historic election. For the first time in the country’s history, an elected government completed its five-year term and will be succeeded by another elected government. Early vote counts announced by Pakistan State TV place former-Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), clearly ahead of the challengers.
Sharif, who is seen as a pragmatist in the West, served as Prime Minster from 1990-1993 when he was ousted on corruption charges, and again from 1997-1999 when he was overthrown by a military coup. Saturday’s resounding defeat of the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) reveals that Pakistanis are eager for change and believe that the third time is the charm for Nawaz Sharif.
This is an historic and extremely important moment for Pakistan, but it is only the beginning of a much-needed transformation. The survival of democracy now depends on the new government’s ability to tackle the difficult issues. Sharif must deal with an abysmal economy, allegations of rampant corruption, internal security issues, and high tensions with border countries India and Afghanistan.
First and foremost, the economy is the most important piece in the puzzle of Pakistan’s future. If Sharif wants to avoid being ousted on charges of incompetence or corruption, as he was in 1993, he must form a government that can fulfill campaign promises to lower unemployment, improve education and solve the country’s energy crisis. Not surprisingly, in a victory speech given Saturday evening, Sharif focused much of his attention on Pakistan’s economic woes. Even his party’s slogan, “strong economy, strong Pakistan,” confirms the number one issue on Pakistanis’ minds.
At the same time, the new Prime Minister will have his hands full with international issues and internal security problems that threaten to tear the country apart. If this civilian government is to survive without another military coup, Sharif must maintain a tight security relationship with the West and improve relations with Pakistan’s neighbors.
The pre-election violence points to the continuing relevance of the Pakistani Taliban. Over 150 people were killed in the weeks leading up to the election and on Election Day alone 29 were murdered in attacks on polling places and party headquarters. Sharif has stated his willingness to negotiate with the Taliban and the international community should support this effort. The fact is, the Taliban’s influence is extremely weak.
Incidents of violence leading up to the election only show how desperate the group has become, as they have never won more than 5% in any of Pakistan’s elections. Sharif must keep up the political and military pressure in order to prevent resurgence, but the West must respect the elected government’s decision to negotiate with the extremists and acknowledge that a Taliban takeover of Pakistan is far from reality.
Security fears in Pakistan are not just homegrown. Tensions with India were at a peak when Sharif was Prime Minister in the late 90s. This time around, however, relations seem to be heading in a peaceful direction. On Sunday morning, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh congratulated Sharif on his victory via Twitter, and invited him to visit India at a “mutually convenient time.” In his campaign, Sharif expressed his desire to resume implementation of the Lahore Declaration, which spells out a shared “vision of peace and stability” between India and Pakistan and the “development of harmonious relations and friendly cooperation.” A peaceful relationship with India, even one based simply on economic ties, will have a tremendous benefit for the peoples of both nations and for the security of the region.
The new leader of Pakistan has many challenges to face in the coming five years but this democratic transfer of power is the first step in the right direction. The spokeswoman for Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice party was right when she stated, “If ever there was a time democracy was needed badly in Pakistan, it is at this moment.”
These elections prove that Pakistan is a burgeoning democracy worthy of congratulations and international support. Pakistanis must remain confident in the democratic process, as previous dictatorships have proven that authoritarian rule is not the key to economic improvement or regional stability. The onus is now on Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N to build the transparent, peaceful, and prosperous country Pakistanis deserve.