Katharine Adeney asks what the recent elections in Pakistan tell us about our definitions of democracy?
The elections held in May 2013 in Pakistan were the first that saw a freely elected government handing over power to another freely elected government. Both the 2008 and 2013 elections were deemed as relatively free and fair by EU Observer Missions, despite some shortcomings. These included evidence of female disenfranchisement, vote rigging and violence disproportionately targeted at three political parties; severely restricting their ability to campaign.
This raises an issue: what is democracy? Is it an elephant (you know it when you see it but it eludes precise definition)? Or, must it meet rigidly defined criteria? If so, what criteria are these? Following this, what implications does this have for the classification of Pakistan after the elections of 2013?
Disagreement exists on defining when a regime has become democratic. A minimalist definition of democracy demands free and fair elections. Other definitions are more taxing e.g. demanding a turnover in power. Freedom House defines a state as an electoral democracy if it has
'[a] competitive, multiparty political system … [u]niversal adult suffrage for all citizens … [r]egularly contested elections conducted in conditions of ballot secrecy, reasonable ballot security, and in the absence of massive voter fraud, and that yield results that are representative of the public will …(and) [s]ignificant public access of major political parties to the electorate through the media and through generally open political campaigning'
Electoral democracies differ from authoritarian regimes which have multiparty elections but in which competition is severely constrained and/or these elections are merely what Andreas Schedler has termed an ‘institutional façade’. They also differ from liberal democracies which Freedom House defines as additionally implying the ‘the presence of a substantial array of civil liberties’.
The Pakistan elections saw the transition from one freely elected government to another. Just as significantly, the outgoing National Assembly was not arbitrarily dissolved by the President. The campaign was vibrant. The success of Imran Khan’s PTI party rallies was a wake up call to many politicians as well as to the youth vote. Social media was more widely used in this election than in previous ones. The Election Commission’s use of a SMS service to inform voters of their nearest polling station was an unqualified success; 55 million potential voters accessing it. Social media was alive on election day with reporting on alleged (and actual) irregularities. The Election Commission ordered a re-poll for selected polling stations in six National Assembly seats. The Free and Fair Election Network reported that nearly 50 polling stations had turnouts of more than 100 percent, a sure sign of rigging. However, the overall picture (given that Pakistan had over 70,000 polling stations) was that the elections were relatively free and fair. Turnout was 60 percent, the highest since the first national elections in 1970, despite the threats from the Pakistan Taliban.
However we cannot ignore that this election will be remembered for being the bloodiest in Pakistan’s history. 150 people were killed during the campaigning phase and a further 64 on election day. At the start of the campaigning phase the Pakistan Taliban, commonly described as the TTP, announced that they would be targeting the ‘secular’ political parties: the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Pakhtun Awami National Party (ANP) and the predominantly Mohajir Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). These three parties were reduced to campaigning via social media, video links and small meetings. The Chairman of the PPP, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari (Benazir’s son) was confined to making the odd speech via video link. Although social media was important in this election, this was predominantly in urban areas. Thus parties that were unable to campaign effectively were still disadvantaged. As such, Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif were criticised for their unwillingness to condemn the targeting of their political opponents. The threat of (and actual) violence meant that there was no level playing field between these parties. However, this violence was not perpetuated by state institutions against their opponents and Pakistan’s elections are not a façade.
The outgoing PPP-led coalition government was derided for corruption and failing to deliver and, therefore, had reconciled itself to a spell in opposition. Accordingly Nawaz Sharif, the leader of Pakistan Muslim League (N), was voted back into power for his third stint as Prime Minister. However the scale of his victory was unexpected; he secured a near majority of seats for the PMLN. This transformed into an overall majority once 19 independents joined the PMLN - it is common in Pakistan elections for numerous independent candidates to join the winning party after the election, before the top up seats for non-Muslim minorities and women are added.
Sharif’s previous departure from office at the hands of General Musharraf in 1999 had been warmly welcomed by much of the population. However, since the 2006 Charter of Democracy signed between him and Benazir Bhutto, many Pakistanis felt that he had matured as a politician. His acceptance of the importance of buttressing Pakistani democracy during the last parliament rather than seeking the dismissal of the government for short term political motivations was a sign of this. He was also seen as a man who gets things done, a not unimportant character trait after the ineffectiveness of the PPP-led coalition government’s years.
Despite this reputation Sharif’s support base is regionally concentrated. Indeed 117 seats out of the PMLN’s 126 general seats (before independents and top up seats were added) were returned from the Punjab. The PMLN has always been seen as a Punjab party and this regional concentration (as well as the fact that the Punjab returns the majority of seats to the National Assembly) causes many smaller political parties concern. It is still too soon to know how the increased provincial powers and revenues (as a result of hugely significant constitutional changes in 2010) will affect centre-province relations in Pakistan. Sharif has acknowledged the need to be inclusive of the other provinces and. with levels of violence rising in Sindh, Balochistan (in the throes of a secessionist/autonomist struggle) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he will need the provincial government’s cooperation if his government is to succeed.
His overall majority will give him greater freedom of manoeuvre than the PPP-led government yet Sharif has several pressing demands. Prominent among these is the need to solve the energy crisis, which has resulted in large parts of the country being without electricity for 12-18 hours a day. It is now estimated that the power crisis is responsible for the loss of 4 percentage points of GDP growth. Other issues are the need to kick-start the economy and ‘deal with’ the Pakistan Taliban, who pose a serious threat to the Pakistani state. Although the energy crisis and the economy are domestic issues, their amelioration will require engagement with neighbouring countries, notably India (increasing trade with India would be a major boost to Pakistan’s economy, and improved relations would increase Pakistan’s access to natural gas through a pipeline provided by India).
But will the Pakistani military be willing to let this rapprochement occur? Their increasing entanglement with Pakistan’s economy might provide an incentive, but it would be a brave analyst who would predict a normalisation of relations between the two countries. Pakistani politicians have always been aware that they are constrained by the military, particularly in relation to foreign and security policy. The Pakistani army is wary of further ceasefire deals with the TTP. In contrast, Sharif has advocated talks (and has retained the foreign and defence portfolios – a sign he means to assert democratic control in these areas, in which elected politicians have been constrained by the military).
We have argued that Pakistan’s elections are relatively free and fair. But do these competitive elections, resulting in a turnover in power, demonstrate that Pakistan is now an electoral democracy? The military imposes constraints, both formal and informal, on the effective power of elected officials to govern in certain areas.
As has been seen in many Latin American and South East Asian countries, a strong military may prevent the consolidation of democracy and a democratic transition may not be followed by a consolidation. Pakistan has made the transition from authoritarianism; elections are relatively free and fair and do not conceal an authoritarian façade. Elections are important to the transition process and further elections (if governments are not unilaterally dismissed) will make it even less likely that the army will be seen as the natural saviours of Pakistan. In addition, major politicians, particularly Nawaz Sharif, have been unwilling to undermine the democratic system for short term political advantage. This has also strengthened democracy. However, if we move beyond a minimalist definition of democracy to one that includes the effective ability of elected representatives to govern, then we must conclude that Pakistan has a way to go. Civilian control of the army and the defence brief will not come easily. This is why Pakistan’s democratic status will remain contested, and why it cannot safely be categorised as an elected democracy.
Katharine Adeney is the Director of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies (IAPS) at the University of Nottingham.