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The Strategic Implications of Pakistani Elections

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By Ishtiaq Ahmed *

The election process in now fully underway in Pakistan. Not only the Pakistani people but their neighbours and the world at large would be watching its outcome with varying degrees of anxiety.

Pakistan has been in the news for the last many years for all the wrong reasons: continuing terrorism within which has occasionally spilled over on both sides of its eastern and western borders; an economy which is in tatters; its major industrial hub and megacity Karachi reeling under gory ethnic and sectarian violence; and its south-western Balochistan province continuing to display strong separatist tendencies, thought the return of a major player, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, to take part in the elections is being considered as indicative of some cracks in the secessionist movement.

The attention is mainly on three national parties: Asif Ali Zardari-led Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Mian Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the main challenger to the status quo: the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI). The return of General Pervez Musharraf to Pakistan to contest the election has added some minor excitement but at present much of the drama is around the bizarre vetting procedure deriving from articles 62 and 63 of the Pakistan constitution. Functionaries of the election commission have been prying into the soundness of the Islamic faith of the Muslim candidates and many have failed to please them with their knowledge of the scriptures. It is still unclear who all would finally be contesting the elections on May 11.

As far Pakistan's two immediate neighbours, India and Afghanistan, are concerned there is reason to believe that the PPP, PML-N and PTI - all three, would adhere to a policy of promoting trade and normalizing relations while the Kashmir dispute would continue to figure on their list of concerns. With regard to Afghanistan, a policy of waiting-and-seeing what will happen after the US-NATO withdrawal would be followed by these three major players.

Gallup polls conducted in Pakistan some weeks ago indicated that Mian Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N would gain some 37% votes while both PPP and PTI would be winning around 15% of the national votes. What that would entail in terms of the seats in the Pakistan Parliament is difficult to say as the first-past-the-post system would favour the major winner. However, from some places reports are that the momentum being with PTI. Would that produce a major upset can be wondered.

However, the question remains: to what extent would an elected government determine its foreign policy independently of the powerful military or rather the army and the foreign office? Conventionally, the military and the foreign office have been calling the shots, mostly in coordination with one another with the military undoubtedly as the senior partner with veto rights. Their influence and clout is not likely to diminish dramatically after the election. However, a 'strategic shift' in the approach of these two institutions has been reported for quite some time. What it means exactly is not clear but roughly it signals a readiness to eschew confrontational approach vis-à-vis the two immediate neighbours and the ubiquitous United States.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, it has meant reducing an alliance on the Pakhtuns and seeking some sort of understanding with groups that are conventionally associated with the Northern Alliance. The prospects of tapping business and trade potential in Afghanistan and beyond into Central Asia brighten in the context of such a strategic shift.

With regard to China, no significant change is expected in the official rhetoric of any elected government about the bonds being unbreakable and forever. Whether that means continuing Chinese economic and military help to Pakistan, even if the Taliban factor is not curbed in Pakistan or is allowed to grow in Afghanistan, is something one can wonder over.

The relationship with the United States of the next civilian government remains difficult to anticipate at present though there too any major change is not expected. It is unlikely that the PPP will be a major player in the next government. Nawaz Sharif is likely to let his business acumen inform him in his dealing with the Americans while Imran Khan can be an irritant, but only if the Pakistan establishment backs him in this. Imran Khan has expressed the intention to establish a balanced relationship with the US. However, tension between Pakistan and the US exists already over the recent agreement that was reached with Iran over the oil pipeline.

Another major patron of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, may also have objections to it and a Nawaz-led or Imran Khan-led government may be more easily persuaded to stall its implementation. Both have a strong Sunni support base and that can complicate a policy based essentially on economic benefit. But on the other hand, the chronic power shortage that Pakistan suffers from could mean that whichever elected government comes into power the oil pipeline deal is maintained.

What seems almost certain is that Pakistan is going to have another civilian government and the military would prefer not to be seen to be interfering in politics - all other things remaining the same.

* The writer is a PhD (Stockholm University); Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; and Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Karachi: Oxford Unversity Press, 2013; The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . 

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