My piece for South Asia magazine (published in Jan 2013 issue)
General elections in Pakistan are scheduled to take place later this year; however, the ongoing political instability signals otherwise.
The forthcoming general elections in Pakistan are significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, this is a unique moment in Pakistan when a democratic government under a civilian President is completing its term and preparing for a transition through elections. Secondly, due to the constitutional changes made by the current parliament under the 18th and 20th Amendments, the process remains firmly in civilian hands. This has caused an unprecedented moment in our history where the elections are not being supervised or managed by the military establishment, which has called the shots over a larger course of the country’s history.
The last time a civilian regime managed the election was in 1977 but the results were controversial and were annulled, leading to Gen. Zia ul Haq’s led coup d’ etat.
Throughout the 1990s, most political parties were used as puppets by the security establishment against each other. Four elections were held between 1988 and 1999. Each time, a President, who acted at the behest of the military and intelligence agencies, ‘engineered’ the electoral results by appointing a handpicked and compliant caretaker government.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-N (PMLN) were the two major parties playing this game with the Army. The Musharraf coup and subsequent political developments reversed this trend as these two parties entered into a compact in 2007 and agreed not to approach the military to resolve or fix political disputes. Whilst Musharraf and Gen. Kayani oversaw the elections of 2008, the results surprised everyone, illustrating a clear victory for anti-Musharraf forces. Both parties have liaised with the military between 2008-2013 but have jealously guarded their parliamentary space as well as the continuation of the democratic system. Governance challenges and failures notwithstanding, the record of political parties has been encouraging on this front.
In the spirit of constitutionally mandated agreements, the government and opposition have appointed a respectable former judge as the Chief Election Commissioner. Similarly, other formalities have been taken care of and the rest will be handled in the days to come. The appointment of a caretaker administration is another major step that needs to be taken to ensure that an impartial regime takes over the task of administering elections. In Pakistan, given its bitter history, the legitimacy of an election and the confidence in the caretakers is of major importance. […]