For most of the world’s media, Pakistan’s general election was about terrorism. Candidates were identified according to their attitude towards the Taliban, and labelled as ‘secular’ or ‘conservative’. Little was said about party platforms. Circumstances appeared to justify the focus. There was a savage campaign of intimidation by domestic extremists in the run-up to the vote. More than a hundred people died, most of them members of the outgoing ruling coalition parties. The Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) said they were targeted because of their uncompromising attitude towards the Taliban and avowedly secular views. There is some truth to this; but their enthusiastic embrace of the ‘global war on terror’ was a more immediate cause.
Despite the violence, turnout was nearly 60 per cent, the highest in Pakistan’s history. Youth participation was unprecedented. Critics of the ‘war on terror’ roundly defeated its supporters. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has taken a consistent antiwar position, crushed the ANP in the north-west. The PTI did particularly well in Swat, Dir and the Federally Adminstered Tribal Areas, where most of Pakistan’s counterinsurgency operations and US drone attacks are carried out. Also leery of the war, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) evicted the PPP from Punjab, Pakistan’s richest, most populous and developed province.
Terrorism may be foremost in the minds of Western observers; Pakistanis are more worried about the economy, education and corruption. Opinion polls showed that people’s biggest concerns are inflation and unemployment, as well as power outages and high energy costs, which have stunted economic growth and caused much misery: 20-hour blackouts are not unknown. Not all Pakistanis are exposed to terrorist violence; everyone has to buy bread.
The PML and the PPP, the two dynastic parties with feudal roots that until now dominated Pakistani politics, are both notoriously corrupt. But where the PPP relied on cheap populism and the loyalty of jiyalas (‘die-hards’), the PML, a party of merchants and industrialists, has at least spent money on infrastructure projects. When he was prime minister in the 1990s Sharif built the Lahore-Islamabad motorway which has since been extended to Peshawar. His brother, Shahbaz, transformed Lahore.
Most voters appear to have endorsed Sharif as a more capable manager of the economy. Stock markets have signalled their approval with a record surge in share prices. Sharif, a pragmatist, is eager to open trade with India. This might help boost the economy and also reduce military confrontation. Sharif is shielded against charges of compromising national security by his impeccable right-wing credentials.
With the PML in power and the PTI in opposition, the US should enjoy less of the obeisance it had come to expect from Musharraf and the PPP. His large electoral mandate puts Sharif in a strong position to renegotiate Pakistan’s relations with the US, though it is not inevitable that he will try. But with thirty PTI gadflies in the National Assembly, servility will not come without a cost in credibility.
Sharif may have been a conventional choice, but this was doubtless a historic moment. It was the first time a democratic government in Pakistan was able to serve out its term. The first time, too, that the dynastic two-party stranglehold on national politics was shaken, with many once safe, hereditary seats passing on to new actors. Little of this would have been possible without Pakistan’s muckraking, rambunctious and irreverent media, and the newly empowered judiciary, serving as checks on politicians and the military.
But Imran Khan’s PTI, a political movement with broad grassroots support, did most to raise public consciousness and enhance political participation. The PTI won fewer seats than its supporters expected but still managed to emerge as a third pole in Pakistani politics. Khan has made allegations of vote rigging; and too many early projections were later reversed for his claims to be entirely dismissed. But the PTI’s gains in the crucial Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province are undeniable; it has a chance to form its first provincial government. Its performance there will determine whether 2013 is remembered as a momentary blip in the otherwise bleak trajectory of Pakistani politics or as the beginning of a new era.