This season of political transition in Pakistan turned another page earlier this week with the election of Mamnoon Hussain as the country’s next president. Hussain’s election follows Pakistan’s historic May 11 polls, which saw Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party swept into power. The nation’s military chieftain and the influential Supreme Court chief justice will also step down before the end of the year.
Hussain is hardly a household name in Pakistan, let alone abroad. Indeed, it is striking how little public information exists about the man who will succeed the controversial Asif Zardari. Though briefly the governor of Sindh, Pakistan’s second largest province, Hussain’s Wikipedia profile was all of seven lines long when he was elected.
A textile manufacturer born in what is now India, Hussain is a Mohajir, the Urdu-speaking ethnic group whose forebears migrated from India at the time of the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, and who have dominated the affairs of Karachi for many decades. Sharif and other party leaders no doubt selected Hussain in part because he is from Karachi. The PML-N is primarily Punjab-based, and Hussain’s elevation gives the party some claim to being a national and not simply a regional party.
More to the point, Karachi is the financial and economic hub of Pakistan. If the new prime minister is to succeed in righting Pakistan’s rickety economy, there is no better place to begin than Karachi. Stated differently, Sharif will fail unless he can restore political stability, economic vitality, and law and order to Pakistan’s largest city.
“I belong to Karachi,” Hussain told a reporter shortly before this week’s vote. “If elected, I’ll try to resolve Sindh’s issues and restore peace in Karachi.” That may prove to be a task beyond his capabilities, but Hussain’s many connections to individuals and political parties who did not back Nawaz Sharif in the May elections could play a more important role than many now anticipate in stabilizing Karachi and the surrounding province of Sindh.
Although Hussain has been widely described in recent days as a political lightweight, this is almost certainly an overblown characterization. He has, after all, not simply survived, but flourished, in the bare-knuckles arena that is Pakistani business. He disappeared from the political scene after the 1999 coup that toppled Sharif, but that does not mean he is without experience in deal-making and vote-counting.
Under the terms of the 18th amendment to the constitution, adopted in 2010, Hussain will possess only a fraction of the power wielded by some of his predecessors, including Ghulam Ishaq Khan in the 1980s and 1990s, Pervez Musharraf in the 2000s, and Zardari more recently, who even after adoption of the 18th amendment remained Pakistan’s leading political force until the parliamentary triumph of the PML-N in May.
Nonetheless, Hussain need not be simply a ceremonial president, as most Pakistan-watchers expect. He could do worse than to follow the example of a former president of Pakistan’s great rival India. The Indian presidency is also largely a ceremonial position. Yet former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (2002-07) became a revered figure in India, inspiring his countrymen by his example, integrity, humor, lack of pretension, and force of character. Kalam led Indians to demand more of their politicians. They have frequently been disappointed, but the heightened expectations have provided Indian voters with a new yardstick with which to measure their leaders.
Following Kalam’s example, Hussain might help bring a new tone to Pakistani politics. Using the bully pulpit provided by his office, he could take the lead in making clear that a politics based upon cronyism, patronage, and feudal privilege – long the hallmarks of Pakistani politics — is no longer acceptable.
The Pakistani political system is broken. Pakistan suffers from an absence of leadership and vision, and of equal importance, from a fatalistic acceptance by many Pakistanis of incompetence and corruption. This is extremely harrowing given that, as my colleague Michael Kugelman has pointed out on these pages, “two thirds of the country’s approximately 180 million people are not yet 30 years old, and the median age is 21.” Further, the rot in the country’s political system gives almost no one hope that this trend might be reversed.
If the new president, who at age 73 presumably has few political ambitions for himself, emulates the example set by his Indian counterpart a decade ago, he might help to establish a new standard for accountability, transparency, and integrity in government. He might even convince Pakistanis that politics is important, and can work for them. Were he to succeed in this task, he would do more than merely astound his skeptics; he would have provided a huge service to his country.
Robert M. Hathaway is director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.