Pakistan’s political scene inhabits a certain dualism. While the churn of constantly morphing coalitions and political parties constitutes the most visible aspect of Pakistan’s federal parliamentary democracy, citizens and politicians alike know that real political power is concentrated in the hands of Pakistan’s military. The military has held power in Pakistan for more combined years than a civilian government, stalling political development in the name of security threats. Today, the civilian government defers to the military’s decisions on security related issues, and the military is thought to have wide control over Pakistan’s foreign policy orientation. Still, democracy has always been seen by Pakistanis as their natural political system, and military rulers have had to legitimate their positions through elections (though criticism abounds regarding the fairness of these votes).
While Pakistani politics is represented by a multitude of parties (over 18 at the time of the last elections in 2008), two dynastic family clans have dominated the government for more than two decades. The left-leaning Bhutto-Zardari clan leads the incumbent People’s Parliamentarian Party (PPP), with Asif Ali Zardari (the widower of slain former President Benazir Bhutto and a Shia muslim) currently serving as President. The right-leaning Sharif family clan is represented by the increasingly popular Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Group (PML-N), Pakistan’s largest opposition party and the domain of Nawaz Sharif—a former Prime Minister of Pakistan, a Sunni Muslim and crafty political survivor.
Despite sectarianism and deep mistrust between the two clans and their parties, the PPP and PML-N joined forces in a tenuous political coalition just prior to the 2008 elections, to counter then-president General Pervez Musharraf. However, the coalition between the two fell apart in March of 2011, amid accusations of Zardari corruption and PML-N’s strong resistance both to reforming the blasphemy laws and allowing a strong US presence in Pakistan (highlighted by the recent capture and release of alleged spy Raymond Davis). Observers of the political scene warily eye Nawaz Sharif’s ascendance over Zardari’s increasingly tenuous grasp on power, pipping Sharif and his PML-N party as the leading candidates for the upcoming election in 2013.
Perhaps no one eyes this development more warily than General Ashfaq Kayani, the Chief of Army Staff for Pakistan’s Army and the man deemed more powerful than the President. A former Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Kayani is generally perceived as highly competent and impervious to the political grappling that characterizes Pakistan’s political parties. Kayani has allegedly told US officials that he dislikes and does not respect Zardari, but also expressed larger anxiety over Sharif, whom he views with deep distrust. Kayani’s own star has suffered over his handling of the Raymond Davis case and a recent drone strike that called into question what many Pakistanis perceive as a too-cosy relationship between Kayani and the US.
As Pakistan edges closer to elections in 2013, the current political scene presents a multitude of potential scenarios, and considerable challenges to US foreign policy in South Asia:
–Should Sharif and the PML-N emerge from the opposition to become the winning party in 2013, their vocal repudiation of an American presence in Pakistan (and known support of Taliban and terrorist groups) could pose serious difficulties for the US, not only in term of the current conflict in Afghanistan, but also on a larger geopolitical level in South Asia, especially as it pertains to US ally India
–A Sharif-led government could lead to a confrontation with Kayani and the Pakistani army, either directly or indirectly—with no issue more potentially explosive than the current support that Kayani and the Army have provided to the US
– Saudi Arabia, a key financier and ally to Pakistan, may prefer military rule in Pakistan to a Zardari/PPP government—which they hold in high contempt—but they are also partial to a Sharif-led government (Nawaz Sharif ruled the PML in exile from Saudi Arabia). Given the current strains in the current US-Saudi relationship, Saudi support of an openly anti-US president in Pakistan could pose enormous obstacles for America
Pakistan’s political development will be a significant driver of change in the next decade. Both party politics and civil-military relations provide a wide range of variability for Pakistan’s future, and will interact with economic, security and identity developments to produce an end-state for Pakistan in 2020. What will shape the strengths or weaknesses of democratic institutiosn? How will party politics affect identity formation and contribute to economic stability or instability? Will the military’s influence wane over the next decade, or will security concerns drive a military takeover? Leave us a comment below and tell us how you see Pakistan’s political development to 2020.
Photo Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development