The surprising landslide of Nawaz Sharif marks a historic moment in Pakistan’s political history. Many are optimistic that Pakistan has taken a momentous step towards strengthening its democracy. But for this opening to endure, Pakistan must overcome the long odds of history.
To be sure, there are reasons to hope that last month’s election marks a turning point in Pakistani politics. High voter turnout and fair elections produced an unambiguous mandate for a single party that can govern with less backroom wrangling than previous civilian administrations. Moreover, despite Taliban-directed violence, the elections evinced democratic engagement among Pakistan’s youth, which constitutes two-thirds of the country’s population.
For democracy to consolidate, though, this engagement must be channelled into strategically side-lining the military and the tough, slow work of building of political parties that have organisational depth and programmatic commitments beyond their charismatic leaders. This challenge is hardly new for Pakistan — it is eerily similar to the situation Pakistan faced upon Independence in 1947. That year, Pakistan and India were created amidst nationalist fervour, under the leadership of charismatic leaders, possessing militaries confined to the barracks and nationalist political parties that had governed in pre-independence colonial provinces.
Despite these similarities, India and Pakistan’s first independent decade witnessed a startling democratic divergence. India promulgated a representative Constitution, held fair national elections, and installed an accountable chief executive, while Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly was twice dismissed and a military coup formally arrogated governing power in 1958. Six decades and three military coups since, no civilian government in Pakistan was allowed to finish a term in office — until last month.
What catapulted Pakistan onto such a dramatically different trajectory? And what lessons can one draw from this divergence for the democratic crossroads at which Pakistan currently stands? My research shows that the most critical explanation for these different democratic trajectories lies in the organisational capacities of their nationalist political parties. This organisational capacity continues to condition Pakistan’s ongoing political instability today.
Upon Independence, though Pakistan inherited a more pressing economic situation and a larger refugee crisis, it was the inability of Pakistan’s nationalist party to broker governing compromises between its core supporters that directly led the military to aggrandise executive power. In India, by contrast, it was the presence of an integrated, relatively disciplined political party able to discipline regional leaders that established civilian control over the military.
The early trend of autocratic instability has continued to characterise Pakistan for different reasons. First and foremost, the Pakistani security establishment has become deeply vested in the perpetuation of a status quo in which India allegedly poses an existential threat. In addition, US patronage of Pakistan’s security establishment for Cold War and anti-terrorist considerations has served to strengthen the military’s bargaining power vis-à-vis other domestic actors.
Seen from a long-term perspective then, democratic consolidation in Pakistan is up against two fundamental challenges. Perhaps the most critical challenge will be preventing another military coup. This will involve changing the self-image of the military as the competent guardian of national interests. Improving Indo-Pakistan relations will be a key element of accomplishing that goal because the perception of an existential threat from India has long been the narrative raison d’etre for military assumption of executive power.
Thus, Sharif should move as quickly as he can to normalise relations with India — accepting the Line of Control in Kashmir as the effective international border and boosting trade links with India — because these policies will be least difficult to implement on the immediate tail of a widely legitimate democratic election. Such steps will surely antagonise elements within the military. But Sharif should use his political capital while he still has it. Minimising the military’s political prerogative is fraught with danger. It is for this reason that Sharif should adopt an attitude of clemency towards Musharraf. If his overarching priority is keeping the military in the barracks, then unnecessarily antagonising the former military chief is unhelpful.
Helpfully, there are reasons to believe it is an auspicious moment for confining the Pakistani military to its barracks. It is increasingly difficult to silence unfavourable news stories, with the loss of state control over the media and the spread of mobile information technology. Pakistan’s increasingly assertive Supreme Court, which Musharraf unsuccessfully attempted to shut down in 2007, is generally a pro-democratic force that has emerged strengthened from its stand-offs with the Musharraf and Zardari governments. And the development of extensive economic interests within the military means it may be more open to the growth-promoting normalisation of Indo-Pakistan relations.
The second long-term challenge will be to embark upon the strengthening of the PML-N and other political parties such that they outlive their leader’s tenure. Building organisationally robust parties that outlive charismatic leadership is no easy task. It requires sustained deliberation, engagement, and above all, organised popular pressure from below. A vibrant democratic process is unthinkable without organisations that support and broker compromises between core social groups. Political parties are often corrupt and patronage-based, but there is no democratic alternative.
Despite the long historical odds, then, the recent elections could portend democratic deepening in Pakistan and warming relations with India. But it remains too early to say whether this will come to pass. It is worth remembering that Pakistan’s democratic moment unfolds against a background of deeply unfavourable institutional history. While these elections are a decisive step in the right direction, Pakistan’s growing democratisation is hardly irreversible.
Maya Tudor, a University Lecturer in Government and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, is the author of ‘The Promise of Power: The Origins of Democracy in India and Autocracy in Pakistan’
This article originally appeared in the Indian Express