Pakistan made history last month after its civilian government completed a full term in office for the first time since its founding in 1947. Democracy has traditionally proven elusive in Pakistan. Each of its civilian governments has either been prematurely toppled by political instability or overthrown in a military coup. The Pakistani military has governed the country for more than half of its 65 years of independence, establishing itself as the most powerful institution in the Islamic republic. Last month, however, witnessed President Asif Ali Zardari's civilian government become the first in Pakistani history to complete a full five-year term, setting the stage for parliamentary elections in May. If successful, the elections would mark the first peaceful transition of power between two consecutive democratically-elected governments in Islamabad.
While Pakistan has achieved an historic milestone and may be on the verge of another, it has little to celebrate. The civilian government remains deeply unpopular, hobbled by a series of corruption scandals surrounding both President Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf. Pakistan's economy remains in free fall, with some analysts arguing that the worsening economic situation will likely exacerbate existing tensions.
More troubling is the brutal orgy of violence that has consumed the country, which grows increasingly vicious and ordinary with each passing day. A variety of extremists have steadily extended their bloody grip over Pakistan's cities, indiscriminately targeting ethnic and religious minorities, politicians, aid workers, and even school children like Malala Yousafzai. Islamabad's inability -- or unwillingness -- to stem the endless tide of atrocities has exposed the weakness of Pakistan's civilian government in the face of the myriad extremists who terrorize the country daily.
Given these grave challenges, Pakistan's upcoming parliamentary elections constitute a crucial test for its fragile democracy. Will the country's new government be able to address the rapidly deteriorating state of affairs in the country? If the past is any indicator of the future, the outlook is grim. Although voters will have a slate of political parties to choose from when casting their ballots this spring, it is unlikely that any of these parties will be able to rein in the forces of chaos and instability prevailing over Pakistan today.
The incumbent Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), for instance, inherited a country in crisis after assuming power in 2008, but proceeded to bring Pakistan to the brink of collapse over its five-year term. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the PPP is unlikely to win parliamentary elections according to the latest polls.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), on the other hand, has emerged as the frontrunner poised to win a majority of seats in parliament. This is due primarily to Sharif's efforts in championing the construction of a modern metro bus system in Lahore. The scheme is part of his larger strategy to focus his campaign squarely on Pakistan's economic development. Sharif, however, has failed to offer a plan to stop the brutal violence savaging Pakistan, and he has even been accused of striking unsavory electoral deals with terrorists based in Punjab. Like Zardari today, Sharif's previous tenure as premier was marred by accusations of widespread corruption, incompetence, and complicity with militants before a bloodless coup led by General Pervez Musharraf forced him into exile until 2007. It is unclear whether Sharif will bring real reform to Pakistan should he return to power.
General Musharraf, who went on to govern the country for almost a decade until he was forced to step down in 2008, recently returned to Pakistan to contest elections following his own stint in exile abroad. Despite his promise to "save Pakistan," Musharraf's homecoming has been rocky. His lack of any constituency in the country makes it unlikely that he will be the savior he wishes to be.
Cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, has harnessed his enduring celebrity as one of Pakistan's most beloved national figures into a potent political popularity. A recent campaign rally of his drew a staggering 150,000 supporters, illustrating Khan's appeal as an alternative to the dynastic and venal PPP and PML-N. But questions persist over whether Khan can actually deliver on his ambitious platform of change. His support for negotiations with the Taliban and other extremists groups is also reason for pause, if not concern.
While Pakistan undoubtedly faces a number of formidable challenges between now and May, there is reason for cautious optimism and even hope for Pakistan's struggling democracy. The panoply of political parties vying to form Pakistan's new civilian government has helped invigorate the country's frail democratic system. The newly independent and neutral Election Commission is working to ensure the integrity of the vote. The military so far has proven to be the dog that hasn't barked, pledging not to interfere with the upcoming elections or back any particular political party -- another first for the country. These are all encouraging signs that Pakistan's democracy may be slowly maturing.
For far too long, the bullet has triumphed over the ballot in Pakistan. Hopefully the country can make history again in May by refusing to repeat it.