This weekend saw a historic moment for Pakistan, as a democratically elected civilian government completed its full five year term for the first time ever. In the past, governments have been ousted by the military or by rivals. The moment passed relatively quietly, with a televised farewell address from the prime minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on Sunday. In an understated address, he conceded that his government had not done enough during the last five years, but maintained that it had lessened the problems it had inherited. He also said that the historic completion of a full term marked the end of a “sinister chapter” of attacks on democracy. “We have strengthened the foundations of democracy to such an extent that no one will be able to harm it in future,” he said.
Many judge the government’s main achievement to be surviving at all. This was no small feat. At the beginning of the five year term, few observers thought that the leading coalition would last more than a year. Asif Ali Zardari was seen as an accidental president, who ended up in this position of power only because of the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto. While Zardari remains unpopular, he has gained a reputation as a canny politician and dealmaker, who kept an unruly coalition together against the odds, despite junior partners frequently breaking away or demanding greater concessions.
There has been a lot of focus on the negative legacy that this government has left behind. Pakistan is in the throes of an energy crisis, with power cuts plaguing large swathes of the country. (As I write this, from the capital city Islamabad, the power has gone off for the fourth time today). Terrorist violence has increased, not reduced, a trend which has not been helped by the lack of a coherent government anti-terrorism strategy. Attacks against religious minorities continue with impunity – from mob attacks against Christian communities to targeted militant violence against Shias. Economic growth is sluggish, while corruption is rife and tax bills low.
Yet on the flipside, the positives should not be overlooked. The level of media freedom enjoyed in the last five years has been unprecedented. Although there were some exceptions, in general, the political opposition and media organisations have been able to say what they want. This has resulted in a lot of mockery and criticism of the present government, to a degree that would have been unthinkable in the past. There have also been significant steps forward in the area of constitutional reform, with greater devolution of power to provincial governments and changes to improve electoral practice.
For months, rumours have circulated that the election will be delayed or cancelled altogether. While I was living in Karachi last year, practically every social gathering featured someone declaring that they knew the election wouldn’t be happening for some reason or another. This demonstrates deep-seated public disbelief that this moment would ever come to pass; a psyche borne of decades of last minute interceptions and power grabs.
The challenge is far from over. Now that the National Assembly has dissolved, the ruling parties are in the process of establishing a caretaker government which will run the country while the Election Commission gets things in order. Shoring up the security situation to reduce bloodshed from terrorist attacks during the polls will be a priority. The election schedule has not yet been announced and rumours still proliferate that the caretaker set up will be extended and elections held off for a year or even two.
The crucial point is that for all the misgivings about the present government, the Pakistani public will, for the first time ever, have the chance to express these feelings through the ballot box. The significance of that cannot be underestimated.