Amid a Taliban insurgency and discontent with government officials, Pakistanis remain strongly attached to free elections. But until politicians improve the standard of governance and the popular military recedes from politics, democracy will remain incomplete.
Pakistanis have shed blood for democracy. The country’s most recent election in May 2013 was its bloodiest. It was held during the height of the Taliban insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis. The Pakistan Taliban, known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban, made the election an explicit target, calling democracy un-Islamic, “an infidel system.” During the campaign, the Pakistan Taliban targeted candidates and political party supporters at rallies, killing more than 130 people. At first, the targets were secular or left-leaning parties—the Awami National Party (ANP) from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The week before the election, terrorists struck the Islamist Jamiat-ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) (JUI-F) as well, killing at least thirty people in two attacks. The Taliban told people to stay away from the polls, warning of more violence on election day.
The election was ultimately a success. The targeted parties curtailed some of their activities, but they did not stop campaigning. Rallies were held in a carnival atmosphere, especially in the urban areas, and mobilized many who had been unmotivated to vote in previous elections. There was a palpable energy in the air. Pakistanis were ready for a turnaround after years of insecurity and bloodshed, an energy crisis, an economy that seemed in free fall, and continued misgovernance. Citizens had become terribly disappointed with the governing PPP. According to a national Pew poll in 2013, 83 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the party’s leader, President Asif Ali Zardari (widower of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto). Yet Pakistanis placed their hopes for change firmly in elected government. A Pew poll in Pakistan in 2012 found that it was important to 88 percent of respondents that people choose their leaders in free elections.
On election day, turnout was 55 percent, despite threats of terrorist violence. This was significantly higher than voter turnout in Pakistan’s previous six elections from 1988 to 2008, when it ranged between 35 percent and 45 percent. Election-day attacks did occur: at least thirty-eight people were killed in Karachi and Balochistan, but the violence was contained relative to the Taliban’s threats. Veteran politician Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won an impressive mandate, capturing 188 out of 342 seats in parliament (a tally that includes nineteen independent candidates who switched to the PML-N post-election). Former star cricketer Imran Khan steered his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) into national prominence alongside the PPP and PML-N. The PPP was routed, especially in Punjab, winning only forty-six seats; and the PTI emerged as a solid third party, winning thirty-three seats.
In the three years since then, trends have been less sanguine. The election that brought Nawaz back as prime minister for the third time had been marred by anecdotal evidence of electoral rigging. Despite the finding of international election observers that the election was by and large fair, in the fall of 2014 Khan’s PTI launched a protest against the government, calling for Sharif to resign (with slogans of “Go, Nawaz, Go!”) and for fresh elections. Khan called off the protest only after the December 2014 terrorist attack in Peshawar that killed more than 130 schoolchildren demanded national unity in the face of extremism.