The very act of being held was enough to make Pakistan’s general elections a historic event. That it led to a record turnout in the sights of Tehreek-e-Taliban guns makes it a memorable act of national courage. And that it seems set to produce a near single-party majority means the elections hold a genuine chance of fundamentally moving away this 200 million-strong country from its present path of dysfunctionality and violence.
Prime minister-to-be Nawaz Sharif has sailed home with a remarkable mandate. His Pakistan Muslim League will now be allotted the majority of the minority reserved seats, the support of other Muslim League splinters and a motley crew of independents — more than enough to have a comfortable legislative majority.
Even Imran Khan, whose party’s chances were always exaggerated by fellow members of his chattering classes, has done well. After years of winning one per cent of the vote, he has emerged as the de facto opposition leader. Even if the Pakistan People’s Party pips him for second place after all the votes have been counted, the former’s internal disarray means the mantle is Khan’s for the asking.
The question that should be asked is what will Sharif do with this historical victory. India has genuine reason to be pleased. Though both President Asif Ali Zardari of the PPP and Sharif are firm believers in a pragmatic relationship with India, the former’s public unpopularity has meant he could do little beyond rhetorical flourishes.
Sharif, the co-author of the Lahore bus peace process, has been far more willing to walk the India talk — even in the teeth of strong military opposition. In the run up to the election, for example, Sharif has even declared a willingness to investigate the role of the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence in the Mumbai 26/11 attacks. At the heart of such promises is a sense that the Pakistani military, which has experienced a huge erosion of its political strength at home, may not have the stomach to take on a popular government. It may also reflect a recognition by Sharif that the militancy and law and order issues that trouble his country have the outsized influence of the generals as their root cause.
India should not expect a Kashmir settlement or the arrest of Hafiz Saeed in a few months’ time. What it can hope for is a government that will address the structural failures of the Pakistani economy; a government that will try and strengthen civilian institutions at the expense of the army; and a government that will understand that cutting dependence on the United States and China is only possible if Pakistan has a modus vivendi with India. If, over the next few years, the regime comes through on these fronts, it can truly be said that Pakistan experienced a revolution this weekend through the ballot box.