Pakistan is not a country that would be expected to be making progress toward democratization. It is the global headquarters of al Qaeda transnational jihadist forces and has experienced a massive Islamist insurgency. Thousands of attacks have occurred in Pakistan over the past decade, killing at least 40,000 citizens, including the leader of the country's largest political party and former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in 2007. The country's economy is in shambles, a situation made worse by collapsing infrastructure in its power and energy sectors and high levels of insecurity. Since the 1980s, it has experienced a growth in religious extremism and radicalism. And, most important, Pakistan has been ruled by its military-intelligence establishment for most of its history.
Nevertheless, the government's completion of a full five-year elected term on March 17 could be a significant turning point. In accordance with the constitution, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has dissolved the parliament and Cabinet and will remain in his position for a few days, until the government and the opposition agree on a caretaker prime minister. The democratic transfer of power is not complete and will not be until after elections are held in May, but this is a time of many unprecedented developments in Pakistan's history — developments made all the more significant by the many ills that are plaguing and will continue to plague the country in the near term.
The Paradox of Pakistan's Democracy
How is it possible that Pakistan can democratize at the same time that it is facing unprecedented challenges?
First, the constitutional process has been ingrained in Pakistan since its inception. Even though military autocrats have long ruled the country, it was created as the result of a constitutional process in which the demand for Muslim separatism from the founders of Pakistan led to the partition of British India in 1947. Second, the country's 1973 constitution is resilient, having survived two long periods of military rule: the regimes of Muhammad Zia ul-Haq (1977-88) and Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008). Third, for the first time the two main parties, the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, looked beyond their differences and, recognizing that it was always a loss for both sides, did not collaborate with the military to topple the other's government.
But most important, the military's ability to run the country has been reduced, largely due to the manner in which Musharraf, the country's last military ruler, governed the country. It was under Musharraf's rule that Pakistan saw an exponential growth of civil society, the rise of the private media and the country's judiciary asserting itself as an actor independent of the military. Certainly Musharraf did not intend for his doctrine of "enlightened moderation" to undermine his own government, but it did.
It was under Musharraf that Pakistan, in the wake of 9/11, was forced to revise its decades-old policy of using Islamist militants as instruments of foreign policy in relation to India and Afghanistan. That policy had allowed Islamist militants to establish deep roots in society and the state, especially the security establishment. This is why when Pakistan aligned with the United States in the war against jihadism, many of Islamabad's former proxies and their local and international allies responded by launching an insurgency that has worsened in the past seven years. Largely, Pakistan suffered because of the Taliban and al Qaeda spillover in the aftermath of the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
The Military's Weakening Political Role
Until early 2007, the Musharraf-led military regime had things mostly under control — there were still hundreds of terrorist attacks, but they targeted foreigners and religious minorities instead of the state. Musharraf's decision to sack the chief justice in March 2007 and the military raid to flush out extremists from a major mosque in the heart of the capital in July created twin crises for the regime. As a major pro-democracy movement began, jihadists dramatically increased their attacks, largely against police, military and intelligence targets.
Eventually, the military could no longer manage the situation. Musharraf was forced to resign as military chief in November, and one month later, Bhutto was assassinated. Bhutto's party and other secular parties then won most of the seats in the February 2008 elections. Six months later, Musharraf was forced to step down from the presidency.
Since the fall of Musharraf, the army and the country's main intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, have increasingly been off-balance — in great part because they could not simultaneously deal with the jihadist insurgency and the growing demands for civilian rule. The position of the Pakistani military was further undermined when relations between Islamabad and Washington imploded in 2011, due largely to the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by U.S. commandos.
Considering the overall situation of the country, military rule would only aggravate matters. Most social and political forces are no longer willing to tolerate the military in government. If the military tried to intervene, it would risk a major public uprising, which the jihadists would exploit. The United States and the international community could also impose sanctions. In fact, the $7.5 billion Kerry-Lugar aid package that the United States approved for Pakistan specifically states that the aid will be given to Pakistan only if there is a civilian government.
Agreement Is Key
All these factors have enabled civilian rule to grow in Pakistan. It should be noted that the military may not be in a position to intervene in politics, but it retains significant influence in policymaking, especially when it comes to foreign policy and national security matters. What has kept the democratic process going is that the men in uniform and their civilian counterparts so far have been more or less on the same page on most issues.
Of course, the performance of the outgoing government has been dismal, especially on the security and economic fronts. There is growing public dissatisfaction with the main parties, as seen in the rise of Imran Khan's movement and the recent popular march and sit-in organized by cleric-turned-politician Tahir-ul-Qadri. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that there will be enough public outrage for Khan's movement to make a strong showing in the May elections.
The major parties will retain considerable support from their core constituencies. In fact, according to two recent polls (especially the one organized by the independent democracy promotion group Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency), Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz seems to have the most support. Regardless of which party comes out on top, a more divided parliament is likely to emerge, meaning policymaking will be a struggle.
But as long as the political process moves forward, Islamabad will probably be able to continue to manage the country's numerous crises. The most significant challenge for the next government will be to deal with the effects of a U.S. and NATO drawdown from Afghanistan, something that threatens to worsen militancy in Pakistan. Washington and Islamabad are both hoping that a democratic government will produce enough political stability that the situation can be managed.
Ultimately, whether Pakistan continues on this path of democratization depends largely on the ability of the civilian forces to get along with one another.