Pakistan: The Eye of the Storm

The Flame of Hope
Pakistan: The Eye of the Storm - Hijab Shah

A storm is brewing over South Asia. The next two years will bring about a tempest of change in the region: elections in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan will significantly impact the local and international political landscape; the withdrawal of International Security Assistance Forces from Afghanistan after a decade of warfare will mark a historic transition in the country and its neighborhood; and militant groups in the region will likely see a paradigm shift in their doctrine and a recalibration of their power bases over the next few years.

As these forces coalesce, Pakistan finds itself very much at the center of events – in effect, the eye of the storm.

With less than a month until Pakistan goes to the polling booth, the May 11 elections will set the tone for events that will shape the region in the near future. Although the country has crossed a historic milestone — the first democratically elected civilian government completed its full term in office under President Asif Ali Zardari — the hype will have been for naught if the elections go awry. Security concerns and candidate controversy notwithstanding, the elections will likely be a messy affair. The absence of a clear frontrunner will likely result in a patchwork coalition in Islamabad; this bodes well for the Pakistani democratic experiment, but creates an air of uncertainly around issues that require bold decision-making and strong governance.

Pakistan can hardly afford a distracted government fraught with infighting, especially when it has a violent internal insurgency — one that poses as large an existential threat to the nation as has historically been attributed to neighboring India. Throw in a separatist movement in Baluchistan, growing sectarian and minority tensions, and acute energy and economic crises, and you have a country that can be held together only by sheer force of will. Pakistan is in desperate need of good leaders, and it does not help matters that two of its best will be stepping down in just a few short months. The Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is set to complete his term soon after the elections, in November 2013. A month later, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry will step down from his seat at the helm of the Supreme Court.

General Kayani has played an instrumental role in the historic completion of the Zardari government term, simply by choosing not to interfere in domestic politics. Contrary to the position taken by some of his predecessors, Kayani made it very clear that the military would not disrupt civilian rule, focusing instead on the extremist threat within the country and on relations with the United States. It is unclear if the next COAS will continue in General Kayani’s footsteps and maintain open — if not friendly — relations with the United States as the latter transitions out of Afghanistan. The tone Kayani’s replacement will take with India will also play a huge part in defining the power dynamics between the two countries and the region as a whole in the near future. 

Instrumental in bringing about the end of President General Parvez Musharraf’s rule, Chief Justice Chaudhry has chosen a much more involved — and controversial — role in national politics. Over the past few years, Chaudhry has dismissed then-standing Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani for contempt of court, challenged the security establishment for its role in extrajudicial kidnappings and killings, and relitigated corruption cases against prominent politicians. But despite the controversy, the Chief Justice has, for perhaps the first time in Pakistan’s history, cemented the judiciary as an active and independent branch within the country’s governance structure. Chaudhry has taken a personal interest in many significant issues within Pakistan; yet, it is unclear if the suo moto justice that Pakistan has come to admire has been institutionalized in any capacity, or if it is just the product of a cult of personality that will promptly revert to its old ways with the appointment of a less committed replacement.

How the Pakistani elections unfold will provide needed clarity in a regional outlook that is currently too murky to forecast. The severity of the impending storm will only be apparent when we are in the midst of it.

Hijab Shah is a graduate of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Originally from Peshawar, Pakistan, Hijab works at a bipartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. The opinions or analyses reflected in this piece are her personal views.