A First
The Economist’s Banyan Blog

PAKISTAN is on the verge of making political history: its first transfer of power from one democratic government, which has completed its term, to another elected government. Its halting experiments with democracy in the past were always interrupted by the real power of the land: the men in khaki, stationed down the road from Islamabad in Rawalpindi. The bayonet has always trumped the ballot. This time, the civilians were allowed to continue in office.

Not that anyone is celebrating. The five year term of President Asif Zardari’s administration has been marked by new depths of corruption and mismanagement, while the menace of terrorism went largely unchecked. There is still much feverish talk that the elections, somehow, will not be allowed to take place, though it is hard to see what could stop them now.

The government and parliament completed their five year terms on March 16th. Now an interim government, led by a caretaker prime minister, is supposed to be installed for a two-month period, so that a neutral administration can oversee the election. So far though, Mr Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party has not been able to agree on a name for the caretaker prime minister with the opposition party, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N.

If the deadlock continues to the end of the week, the issue will be handed over to the independent Election Commission to decide, in a move that would be seen as a failure of democratic bargaining. Some fear that a caretaker prime minister not chosen by the politicians could perhaps be persuaded by the military to just continue in office without the bother of elections.

Pakistan’s latest period of military rule, over eight years under General Pervez Musharraf, ended in 2008, with the elections that brought the PPP to power. Mr Musharraf had planned to stay on as president, which is supposedly a ceremonial position, but he was eased out after that election by Mr Zardari, who replaced him. Musharraf went into exile, though he is currently threatening to return and stand in the current polls.

During the last election campaign the PPP’s leader, Benazir Bhutto, who had served as prime minister twice before, was killed by a suicide bomber. The PPP suspects that the military establishment was behind the assassination, though it has been able to prove nothing about that while in office.

After Ms Bhutto’s murder, a huge wave of sympathy and goodwill took the PPP, traditionally a left-leaning party, to power in 2008. That opportunity was squandered by Mr Zardari’s cynical politics, which seemed motivated only by his determination to cling to power and its spoils. With the PPP holding just over a third of the seats in parliament, Mr Zardari’s skills proved to be in building a coalition and keeping it together.

There were strong challenges to the PPP’s continuation in office, though not really from the political opposition. Firstly, a movement by lawyers for an independent judiciary, motivated by Mr Musharraf’s sacking of the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, in 2007, a move that proved to be the beginning of the end for the general’s time in office. Mr Zardari didn’t want the troublesome judge to be reinstated either. But a march on Islamabad by the lawyers, joined by Mr Sharif’s party, forced the restoration of Mr Chaudhry, in March 2009.

Once back as chief justice, Mr Chaudhry duly hounded the government every day, questioning many of its decisions, opening corruption cases and trying to oust Mr Zardari. The judge managed to draw blood last year when he ordered the removal of prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, but he never managed to penetrate the presidential office’s legal immunity.

The other challenge came from the military. Mr Zardari was forced to hand over security and foreign policy to Rawalpindi. At times, it looked like the army was behind plots to remove the government. Overall, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani won praise though for keeping the military out of politics (relative to the recent past at least). General Kayani must have recognised that the armed forces were too stretched by fighting the ongoing insurgency, by al-Qaeda inspired extremists in north-west Pakistan, to have the capacity to govern the country too.

The last five years saw a three-way tussle over the levers of power between the executive, the judiciary and the military. With democracy so novel, institutions were trying to carve out the limits of their power. It now looks as if the politicians have won.

Polls give the conservative Mr Sharif a big lead. A survey out in January by the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based organisation, gave Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N 32%, the PPP just 14% and the party of cricketer turned politician Imran Khan 18%. Undecideds made up 17%, so there is much to play for.

Mr Khan is the wild card, aiming to break Pakistan’s two party system. A strange blend of liberal and conservative, with a large measure of celebrity glamour, he has lost much of the momentum he garnered last year, but he could still eat into the votes of either of the main parties. Most pundits think though that Mr Khan threatens the vote bank of Mr Sharif most.

With a first-past-the-post electoral system, and much riding in Pakistan on the strength of individual candidates in constituencies, the result of the election is not a foregone conclusion, and could turn out to be close.

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