On July 25, Pakistanis will vote in elections for the country's federal and provincial assemblies. The outcome will determine how the troubled country addresses a number of issues, including a worsening trade imbalance, domestic terrorism, energy shortages and water scarcity. The elections will also influence the balance of power between the civilian government and Pakistan's politically powerful army. This is something that will heavily affect Islamabad's deteriorating relationship with its once-staunch ally, the United States, and determine how Pakistan pursues its competition with archrival India.
Pakistan, the world's sixth most-populous country, sits at the intersection of the Middle East and South Asia. Islamabad's foreign policy is dominated by its armed forces, which seek to secure the contested border with Afghanistan in an effort to stabilize one front so that more attention can be shifted to face India. These external developments depend on the military's ability to maintain a favorable balance of power with the elected domestic government, hence its continuing efforts to fend off challenges to its rule from the country's political parties.
In the wake of a corruption conviction that sidelined former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his center-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, now being led by his brother Shahbaz Sharif, is struggling to stave off advances from the country's two other major political parties. The center-left Pakistan People's Party is being led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari — scion of the prominent Bhutto political family, while Imran Khan, a former cricket champion-turned-politician, heads the center-right Pakistan Tahrik-e-Insaf. A number of smaller parties spanning the religious and political spectrum are also competing, along with a host of independent candidates.
The case against Nawaz Sharif has created high political drama in the runup to this year's elections. He attempted to pin responsibility for his conviction and imprisonment on a conspiracy between the army and the judiciary, insinuating that they teamed up to help Khan — accusations the military has denied. The fallout from the controversial trial isn't the only factor that will figure into the outcome of elections.
Here are some things to consider about the current state of Pakistan as the election draws near:
A Charged Political Atmosphere
On July 6, Nawaz Sharif received a 10-year prison sentence on corruption charges, while his daughter and political heir, Maryam, was handed a seven-year sentence. The case followed the 2016 Panama Papers leaks that revealed that Sharif's children owned undeclared offshore assets. Although Sharif himself was not named in the leaks, Khan petitioned a case in the Supreme Court that culminated in Sharif being disqualified from office last July.
The anti-corruption National Accountability Bureau then entered the picture, beginning a review of three outstanding cases against Sharif — whose party had swept to power for an unprecedented third time in 2013 — that culminated in his conviction in one of the cases. The other two cases are still being adjudicated. The army dismissed Sharif's claims of a conspiracy, along with accusations that it is manipulating the electoral landscape by engineering defections from his party, mainstreaming militants through the Milli Muslim League, and intimidating the news media.
The Civilian-Military Balance
The defining feature of Pakistani politics is the fraught relationship between the government's elected leaders and its military, which dominates Pakistan's foreign and defense policies. Sharif fell out of the army's favor following his outreach to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party calls for a more muscular policy against Pakistan. The army remains focused on countering the threat from India while seeking a pliant government in Afghanistan as it tries to avoid being hemmed in by adversarial powers on its flanks. Any party in power must therefore accommodate the army's interests while cautiously seeking ways to expand its influence without antagonizing the generals.
The military's influence in Pakistani politics has its roots in the violent partition of the British Raj in 1947. The threat of imminent conflict with India against the backdrop of the Cold War drove the army's rapid development. It saw politicians as incapable of creating sufficient national unity among its ethnically diverse population, divided between two non-contiguous wings, to stand up to New Delhi.
The at-times adversarial relationship between the military and civilian government has continued to drive events in Pakistan. The army launched its first coup against civilian leaders in October 1958 under Gen. Ayub Khan. Coups followed in 1977 under Gen. Zia-ul-Haq and in 1999 under Gen. Pervez Musharraf, which pushed Sharif out of power during his second term in office. By the time civilian rule returned in 2008, the army had governed Pakistan for 33 years.
The Election's Effects on Geopolitics
The geopolitical significance of Pakistan stems from its rivalry with fellow nuclear power India as well as its hold over the fate of Afghanistan through its sponsorship of the Taliban. Elections not only offer continuity of the democratic process — Pakistan has only undergone one democratic transition, in 2013 — they offer a juncture for a shift in the civilian-military balance with implications for both foreign and defense policies. The military's cultivation of militant proxies (such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Taliban) as tools of foreign policy has long sparked civilian criticism, especially in light of Pakistan finding itself on the Financial Action Task Force's grey list after its latest meeting in June.
Still, the institutional weakness and endemic corruption plaguing the country's personality-driven parties tarnishes the attractiveness of politicians, who often choose cooperation rather than confrontation with the army as a pathway to power. Although Sharif's strategy is to portray himself as a political martyr and to use his ongoing trials as a way to frame this election as a referendum on Pakistan's generals and judges, it's unlikely that the military will cede its authority to the civilians, no matter who wins. In the end, it's unlikely that the July 25 election will bring any substantial changes to Pakistan's foreign policy or defense posture. Irrespective of who the victor is in elections, the country won't discontinue support for militant groups, despite pressure by the United States and other countries. From the army's viewpoint, this is a necessary tactic in its campaign of asymmetric warfare that it wages to compensate for the military imbalance against India as it seeks to guard the country's territorial integrity.
As Pakistan's history shows, should a less pliant government come to power, the military could take matters into its own hands. But the chances of another coup have shrunk. In light of a more vigorous and pervasive media environment — across both traditional and social media platforms — Islamabad's generals have had to take public perceptions into account more than they normally would.