Pakistani Elections: The Long Road to Legitimacy

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Ground Report
Pakistani Elections: The Long Road to Legitimacy - Hijab Shah

Marred by controversy, dysfunction, and scandal, the past five years of Pakistani civilian rule had all the makings of a tantalizing drama. An ambassador resigned amidst scandal; the Prime Minister was ousted from office; his replacement faced an arrest warrant of his own; and an entire province was put under emergency governor rule in light of a sectarian massacre. Despite marking the historic completion of its five-year mandate, the PPP-led coalition lost much of its legitimacy in the eyes of its populace at home and its allies abroad. The new government coming in after the May 11 polls will face an uphill battle to restore the faith of the people and the respect of the international community.

The Election Commission of Pakistan has, over the past few months, overseen preparations for Election Day, reflecting the public’s desire for a clean and fair election. The vetting process for candidates contesting the elections has gained a lot of media attention. On the one hand, the scrutiny process has been inconsistent and sometimes ridiculous; a number of candidates were quizzed by Election Commission officers on Quranic verses and history, and then disqualified for not being “Muslim enough,” or “patriotic enough,” while upwards of 50 known members of sectarian terrorist groups have recently been allowed to contest the elections. On the other hand, the Commission has also uncovered the corrupt pasts of some candidates, barring those with a history of tax evasion and fake claims to educational degrees from contesting the polls. There will certainly be some less-than-scrupulous candidates that slip through the cracks — intentionally or otherwise — but the Pakistani people will, at the very least, be better informed of who they will be voting for next month.

Securing long-term legitimacy for the incoming government will, however, have less to do with electoral integrity and more with public perception. It is no secret that the Pakistani Army is seen within and outside Pakistan as the country’s real power-broker. Despite Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani’s best efforts to let the civilian government handle national affairs, even when matters took a turn for the worse – prime examples being the 2010 floods and the recent earthquake in Baluchistan – the government’s response was inadequate, and the Army had to step in, backed heavily by the public. The Army and General Kayani are also sought out directly for discussions by military and civilian officials from abroad — most notably from the United States — preferred over the well-dressed but poorly-performing civilian leadership.

Representation of Pakistan’s marginalized communities in the new government will be another important indicator of how much legitimacy it will have with its citizens. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), running along the country’s western border with Afghanistan, functions under a parallel judicial system known as the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). An archaic remnant of the British imperial rule, the FCR has limited the political engagement of the people of the tribal areas, and it is in dire need of reform, if not complete overhaul. If that wasn’t enough to marginalize the residents of FATA, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has threatened attacks on polling stations and voters, further hindering electoral participation and political buy-in. FATA will need to be brought into the fold of mainstream Pakistani politics, requiring significant effort and attention both before and after the elections.

Although Baluchistan is technically governed under Pakistan’s mainstream political system, it is no secret that a long history of political negligence and corruption has forsaken the people of the province. Similar to FATA, there is widespread poverty and underdevelopment in Baluchistan, a far cry from the pristine roads, upscale restaurants, and palatial homes of the country’s capital. The sectarian ostracism of the Hazara population and the secessionist sentiment promulgated by the likes of the Baluch Liberation Army (BLA) have finally caught the attention of both the Pakistani public and the international community. Much of Baluchistan’s troubles stem from being underrepresented on the national stage; how the elections pan out and how the new government approaches Baluchistan’s sidelined communities will impact the validity of the government’s mandate within the province.

Despite the grim outlook, there is hope yet for the incoming government in its bid for legitimacy. The nomination of Bajaur Agency’s Badam Zari, FATA’s first female candidate for the National Assembly, and the launch of Radio Mashaal’s political debate series featuring Khyber Agency candidates bring some hope of political involvement and ownership in FATA. One of Baluchistan’s most storied nationalist leaders, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, returned to Pakistan after years of self-imposed exile in Dubai to contest the elections on behalf of the Baluchistan National Party - Mengal (BNP-M). Mengal, the former Chief Minister and BNP-M president, was jailed for leading protests against General Pervez Musharraf’s regime in 2006. His return to politics means representation of the Baluch nationalist cause in the political mainstream, this time by the ballot rather than by the bullet. (Meanwhile, in an ironic twist of fate, General Musharraf was put under house arrest soon after returning from his self-imposed exile.) 

If the elections take place relatively peacefully, and if the new government harnesses the support of its marginalized communities, it will have progressed leaps and bounds in the eyes of its people. Its next steps will be to reconfigure its relationship with the Army, and repair its reputation in the international community. Winning the election is only half the battle — earning domestic and international respect and legitimacy will be the real test.

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.