Pakistan’s Elections: A Harbinger of Peace on the Subcontinent?


Now that we know Nawaz Sharif will succeed Raja Pervez Ashraf as the next prime minster of Pakistan, it’s worth noting that Pakistan has never seen a democratic transition as smooth as the one set to take place between the outgoing Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the newly elected Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML(N).

In its 66-year history as an independent nation, Pakistan has witnessed three military coups and extended rule by army generals. Even today, the nation is plagued by political turmoil. But this year seems to be a new chapter in its turbulent history.

The verdict from the 2013 elections gives the PML(N) 123 seats out of 254 declared results as of Tuesday evening, giving Sharif’s party an unassailable lead over its main rivals, PPP and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which had secured 31 and 26 seats, respectively. The electoral results for the final 18 of Pakistan’s 272 National Assembly seats remain unannounced.

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The voter turnout this year was impressive, with 60 percent of all registered voters turning up to the polls, up from a 45 percent turnout in the last national elections in 2008. This impressive turnout came despite the threat of violence. More than 150 people lost their lives and scores were injured in attacks by insurgents across the country during the election campaigning period and on election day. This brave statement by the people of Pakistan sends a new message to the outside world and gives hope for peace on the Subcontinent.

In particular, India has a stake in the democratic success of its neighbor, with whom relations have been turbulent. There is widespread hope in India that Sharif, who formed a new Indo-Pakistani relationship in the 1990s, will revive the peace process and improve Islamabad’s ties with New Delhi.

Indian Prime minister Manmohan Singh was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Sharif after his emphatic victory. In a letter, Singh talked about charting a new course for the relationship between the two countries and invited his Pakistan counterpart to visit India.

Sharif reciprocated and emphasized the need for improved relations with India. He further stressed the importance of resolving issues, including Kashmir, through peaceful means. He even informally invited the Indian premier to his inauguration ceremony in Islamabad.

According to veteran Pakistani author and political analyst Ahmed Rashid, circumstances may be more favorable this time for Sharif to improve ties with New Delhi. He writes, “During his two premierships in the 1990s, Sharif made genuine efforts at peace with India but was thwarted by an aggressive and uncompromising army.” But, he continues, “The army—faced with a severe weakening of the state—now seems more amenable to improving relations with New Delhi.”

The Hindu opines that where Sharif “gives most hope is in his strong and unambiguous articulation of better India-Pakistan relations, though this will depend on his stated determination to correct the civil-military imbalance, and reclaim the national agenda from the security establishment. Whether he can succeed is another question, but India will be hoping he will.”

As Pakistan passes through a rough economic patch, deeper engagement with its immediate neighbor will not only give the volatile country increased political stability but will also boost growth. India can play a major role in reviving Pakistan's bankrupt economy as a potential investor.

According to an article published by the New Delhi-based think tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), trade between the two South Asian countries could receive renewed impetus under the new regime, barring complications from opposition by the religious right. However, the IDSA article also notes that “one should not expect a lot of change in policies related to terrorism targeted at India or its aversion to India’s presence in Afghanistan.”

Despite skepticism, there is a general mood of optimism in India about the regime change in Pakistan. Just a couple of weeks ago Indian media was full of anti-Pakistan stories in the wake of the attack on Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh in a Pakistani jail. While most Indian reports were full of jingoism in their coverage of the death of Singh, the election has changed the tone of the discourse.

The optimism stems from Sharif’s earlier initiatives in the 1990s to deepen ties with India. In 1999, he started a bus service that runs between Lahore and New Delhi. Then Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Pakistan in the inaugural bus ride. This bonhomie, however, was short-lived. Later that year hostilities erupted between the two nations at the Kargil sector, when the Pakistani army crossed the Line of Control under the leadership of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

The new leadership in Pakistan has a very tough job at hand: alleviate the deep-seated historical fear and mistrust between the two countries.

Likewise, India will have to show maturity in understanding the changing mood and aspirations of the people of Pakistan.

New Delhi needs to recognize that never before has there been such an overwhelming consensus for Pakistan to normalize relations with India. If the leaderships of both countries work hard to tap this desire, they may be able to usher in a new era of peace and progress on the Subcontinent.

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