Military is fourth party shaping Pakistan’s elections, and future

Military is fourth party shaping Pakistan’s elections, and future
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And the winner in today’s elections in Pakistan is ... the army.

Forget, for a moment, which party will win the most seats in the National Assembly. And who is the leader of that party. Such details just provide color. The elections look to be a victory for the military. But whether the army’s success will produce stability and, if so, for how long, is another question.

Situated between chaotic Afghanistan and an increasingly prosperous India, Pakistan is a partner, rather than an ally, of the United States. Friendship has atrophied over the years because of what Washington sees as the Pakistani military’s dabbling with terrorism. Finding that Osama bin Laden was hiding a mile or so from the Pakistani equivalent of West Point didn’t help. Nor did the links to Pakistan of the terrorists who launched a seaborne attack on the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008.


The last military-led government effectively ended in 2008 when President Pervez Musharraf, a former general, resigned. But the phrase “returned to its barracks” misstates the continued supremacy of the military in government. Foreign policy, defense policy and, crucially, control of Pakistan’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, has remained in the hands of the military. The disaster areas of economic and social policy have been left to a series of civilian administrations, constrained by corruption, incompetence and the lion’s share of the budget, which goes to the military and its industrial and commercial complexes.

Unlike India, with its multiple ethnic divides and regional tensions, Pakistan is easy to describe (especially because English remains the language of officialdom). The most populous province is Punjab, bordering India. To the south lies Sindh, less populous and poorer, dominated by the megatropolis of Karachi, on the Indian Ocean. To the west is the largest and emptiest province, Balochistan, where Pakistan tested nuclear weapons 20 years ago.

Until earlier this year, the fourth and last province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, retained the more romantic colonial name of the North-West Frontier Province. Seats in the National Assembly (Parliament) are allocated according to population. A formula allowing for extra seats for women and religious minorities results in a total of 342, of which Punjab has 174.

Apart from the army, which denies any meddling, there have been three parties competing in the election: Imprisoned former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, now led by his brother, has traditionally dominated in Punjab. The Pakistan People’s Party, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and grandson of executed former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, is strong only in Sindh. The outsider, but now favorite, is former cricket star and playboy Imran Khan, whose PTI party is strongest in the former NWFP.

If I lived in Pakistan, the chances are that I would have been arrested and beaten up, or worse, for publishing this analysis. By whom? The army, but nobody dares mention its name in such a context. Journalists live in fear. Newspapers and television stations have learned to curb their coverage to not imperil their commercial prosperity.

The head of the Pakistan army is Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. His power base is the Corps Commanders Conference, the group of generals he regularly chairs to decide strategy. Some are probably more hardline than Bajwa. Their forces include army units in the main cities. At these elections, a record number of soldiers is being mobilized for “election duties.” The activities of the feared ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) probably began shaping the outcome months ago, seeking a more compliant prime minister than Sharif, who had contested the military’s influence.  (The Pakistani air force and navy are support actors to the army, in political terms.)

The majority of Pakistan’s potential 100 million voters live in rural areas, often in feudal poverty, where they will vote as their landlord wants. The process was described last week in a brilliant New York Times op-ed: “Where Democracy Is a Terrifying Business.” In urban areas, the influence of the media is much greater. But it seems that an increasing number of outlets is “on message.” Imran Khan’s promises of “Islamic socialism” and condemnation of corruption, a brush that tarnishes Sharif as well as Bhutto Jr.’s PPP, are endlessly replayed.

Ultimately, though, it is hard to cook a three-way election. The most likely result is that Imran Khan will win a plurality, rather than a majority, of National Assembly seats. He then will have to build a coalition with another party, or persuade newly-elected members to defect to him.  What sort of prime minister will Khan be? My own review of what he has said in interviews suggests he is not a details person.

Khan’s vision, if elected, is to invest in health care and education. Perhaps the military will be prepared to give up some of its share of the budget.

Simon Henderson, the Baker Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was the BBC correspondent in Pakistan in 1977-8 when a contested election result prompted a military coup.