Nawaz’s Decisive Victory Opens Door for Rethinking Pakistan Security Policy

The May 12 parliamentary election in Pakistan was its most consequential since its founding in 1947 for three reasons. For the first time, a popularly elected civilian government ended its first term with a successful election and was not curtailed by a military coup or intervention. A new civilian government was chosen by the electorate and will succeed its predecessor in an orderly, democratic way. That a determined 60 percent of the eligible population voted, notwithstanding nationwide violence throughout the election period by both party advocates and anti-state terrorists, only adds to the importance of the election. Second, the successor civilian government will be headed by the former opposition party, so the elections resulted not in a successor mandate for the existing government but in an opposition victory. Perhaps simplistically, two alternations of power through elections is often taken as a marker for a successful transition at least to electoral if not substantive democracy. This was the first alternation. Third, the defeat of the incumbent government was resounding. A more minor but possibly significant result was the strong showing of Imran Khan’s relatively new Pakkistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the possibility therefore of three, not just two, contending political parties.

The election has shaken the civilian political landscape. One of the two traditional parties, in fact the one with support across provinces, was resoundingly thrashed, even humiliated. The Pakistan People’s Party headed by the Bhutto family for over 50 years was deeply wounded by its historic opponent, the eponymous Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz headed by Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab. Unlike its opponents which were tied almost entirely to a single province, the PPP had arguably been the dominant party in Pakistan with support in all four provinces. Now it is left with seats only in its home province of Sindh and two seats in Punjab while the PML-N is the party with seats in all four provinces. The election has left the PPP with around 30 seats out of 272 in the National Assembly against 130-140 for PML-N and 30 (an equal number to the PPP) for the upstart PTI of Imran Khan, which had before won only a single seat and will now form the government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) Province. Few observers predicted the PML-N dominance, let alone the PPP collapse. Most thought that Nawaz would probably receive the plurality of seats in the Assembly but not that many more than the PPP and therefore that the PPP or PML-N would be the largest but not the predominant party in a ruling and probably unruly coalition. Not anymore.

The political landscape of Pakistan is now less predictable than ever before. The Karachi-based and Muhajir-centered Mutahidda Qaumi Movement, long a majority-contributing coalition partner of the PPP was reduced in Sindh. The relatively moderate Awami National Party, based in K-P (and more recently also in Karachi) has been virtually wiped out with only one seat left in K-P. Both the PPP and the PLM-N have suffered defeats and victories in the past but they have been relatively more moderate than in this election. The PML-N will be the core party in the governance of Punjab, the PTI will be the same in K-P, and the PPP will be reduced to Sindh. There will be no cross-provincial party with substantial seats in three of the provinces.

Internally, the PML-N and the PPP have been dominated by two families. Indeed, some have claimed that the parties were instruments of, respectively, Nawaz and his brother Shabazz for the PML and the Bhutto family for the PPP. Clearly Asif Ari Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s husband and political caretaker of the PPP after her assassination in December 2007 (by the terms of her personal will in fact, virtually demonstrating that the Party belonged to her like so much other property), was unable to carry the party to a second victory. The unwillingness or incapacity of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, their son and presumed Bhutto political heir, to campaign vigorously calls his political future into doubt as well. The PPP itself will almost certainly experience an identity crisis and an organizational crisis after this drubbing. For the first time since its founding in 1967, control of the PPP and its future as a party is uncertain. Formerly senior and even mid-level party leaders will be jockeying for power, for its future and identity, and of course for its electoral viability. The long-feuding Bhutto extended family will naturally fight to hang on to its patrimony. It remains to be seen how deeply wounded it is and how feudal it remains. Along with the performance of Imran Khan, PPP instability will engender a much more dynamic political and electoral landscape in Pakistan as a whole.

But the greatest immediate and existential threat to Pakistani society and the Pakistani state comes from the terrorists. Nawaz’s victory could provide the opportunity to address the insurgents. It could have profound effects for Pakistan’s security strategy. It could lead to a formal change in the army’s strategic doctrine, in which the threat to Pakistan’s security has historically presumed to lie with India on its eastern border instead of anti-state terrorism originating on the western border in FATA and K-P. Indeed, one of the most active terrorist groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba has been supported by the army and the Inter -Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI ) for terrorist attacks on Indian targets in Kashmir. But Lashkar has now turned on its Pakistani masters in a new mission: to replace Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s “secular” state with an Islamist one. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh congratulated Nawaz on his victory, invited him to India, and said he hoped the two countries could chart a new, friendlier relationship. Reciprocally, the day after the elections, Nawaz told reporters that he wants to establish friendly ties with India and he that he would invite Prime Minister Singh to his witness his swearing-in. Nawaz may now urge the largely independent military establishment to turn its attention to the much more profound threat of domestic terrorism. It may be too optimistic to hope that Nawaz will also address the growing insurrection in Baluchistan and will carry the military with him.

To cement such a change, Nawaz will have to patch his relations with the security forces, especially the army. His last term as prime minister was ended abruptly by a coup led by former general and former president Pervez Musharraf after Nawaz ordered the air controllers in Karachi to refuse to allow Musharraf’s airborne plane to land in Karachi. The army’s seizure of the Karachi airport to clear the runway and the subsequent coup was Musharraf’s answer and that of the army itself. Nawaz was arrested, tried in a military court for kidnapping and attempted murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment but was allowed to leave for self-exile in Saudi Arabia under pressure from Saudi King Fahd. He was permitted to return to Pakistan eight years later (after Benazir Bhutto was also allowed to return) following another intervention by the Saudis; if a female socialist was allowed to be come home notwithstanding her own criminal convictions so too should Nawaz, a champion of Islam. Both Nawaz and the military will suffer if they cannot find an accommodation, as will Pakistan since the terrorist threat will go unaddressed if the state’s main institutions are at loggerheads. As they fight with one another, the state itself and the social fabric will become more endangered.

For the United States, the drawdown in Afghanistan will hopefully return Pakistan to its rightful and more central position in the U.S. national security calculus. Notwithstanding his previous critical, even anti-American comments, Nawaz has indicated his interest in good relations with the United States. Pakistan’s stability and democracy are vital to U.S. interests and the threat to Pakistan’s political, economic, and territorial integrity by violent Islamists and Jihadists is profound. It will be catastrophic if Pakistan does not rise to the threat and if the United States does not offer appropriate support and assistance to do so. Pakistan will be careful about any U.S. involvement and vice versa. This is, and needs to be, primarily Pakistan’s fight not that of the United States. Pakistanis must recognize this if they are to address it effectively. The United States should not make Nawaz look like a U.S .dependent, which he will not do anyway. Still, the potential for nuclear-armed Pakistan to face state collapse like Afghanistan or Somalia is the potential for a bleak future in South Asia from which India would not escape. Indeed, outside of Pakistan itself, India would be the primary victim if the Pakistani state were to collapse.

No doubt, Pakistan faces other dire challenges as well, including population growth, energy and water deficiencies, the virtual collapse of the public school system, uncompetitiveness in the global market, consequent increasing unemployment, and relative economic decline. After the resounding electoral victory, Nawaz and the PML-N will now clearly be in charge. With the increased power of the National Assembly relative to the presidency, they will own all of these problems and the electorate will know whom to reward or blame in five years.

Yet the one which immediately threatens the state itself is security. Perhaps it is not too optimistic in a country in which optimism has too often led to disappointment to hope that Nawaz and the military will recognize the common national danger and reach an accommodation, perhaps even a good working relationship, that Nawaz will respect and deepen Pakistan’s democracy, that he will implement policies that produce economic growth rather than further decline, and that he will deal with the insurgency.

Gerald Hyman is senior adviser and president of Hills Program on Governance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Gerald Hyman
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Office of the President