Pakistan Prepares For Election

By Farhan Bokhari in Lahore and Victor Mallet in New Delhi for The Financial Times

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Pakistan’s government stepped down at the weekend after a full five-year term, paving the way for an election and change of administration that would be the country’s first constitutional democratic handover since independence and partition from India in 1947.

“It is true that in the past five years we have not been able to make rivers of milk and honey flow in the country,” said Raja Pervez Ashraf, prime minister in the Pakistan People’s party (PPP) government of President Asif Ali Zardari, in a televised farewell speech.

“We have used all our resources to strengthen the foundations of democracy and – by the grace of God – today democracy is so strong that no one will dare to dislodge it in the future.”

The PPP and its leader Mr Zardari, who was elected after his wife Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, claim credit for strengthening democracy in a country that has been ruled for long periods by the armed forces – most recently under General Pervez Musharraf in the decade up to 2008.

But the government’s popularity has collapsed during its time in office, undermined by bombings and the killing of civilians by the Pakistan Taliban, and by power shortages and other economic problems.

Even the process leading to a change of government is deadlocked, with mainstream politicians so far unable to agree on a caretaker prime minister to run the country for up to 90 days, and to oversee the general election. Among the possible candidates for the position are Ishrat Hussain, a former central bank governor and World Bank official, and Nasir Aslam Zahid, a former judge.

“The immaturity of our democracy is nowhere more evident than in the failure to agree on a way forward,” said one politician from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). “This decision should have been made weeks ago and we still seem to be haggling over it.”

Pakistanis mostly welcomed the completion of the government’s term – a feat that had sometimes seemed in doubt – but criticised Mr Zardari’s inability to curb extremist violence or to start restoring the economy to health.

In a recent incident on March 9, Muslim zealots in Lahore burnt down 178 homes belonging to Christians – a tiny and poverty-stricken minority in Pakistan – following the arrest of a young Christian man on blasphemy charges. More than 250 Shia Muslims have been killed this year in attacks blamed on militant Sunnis.

Senior officials have also been murdered during the government’s term. They include Salman Taseer, governor of the populous Punjab province, killed by one of his police guards after Mr Taseer publicly defended Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman arrested in another blasphemy case.

“It would be utterly crazy to celebrate this coming of age of democracy,” said Nadeem Masih, a Christian office worker in Lahore. “The government has left more Pakistanis insecure than when it came to office.”

Investors are equally sceptical, noting the fall in the value of the Pakistani rupee and the state of most of the country’s infrastructure. “The economy is in shambles, there is more corruption and cronyism,” said one businessman from Karachi, who asked not to be named. “Should we still celebrate this democracy?”

Western diplomats say one reason why Pakistan might be able to keep its democracy alive is the refusal thus far by General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the army chief, to seize power in response to calls from some of the government’s opponents.

“General Kayani has played a very sobering role,” said one diplomat in Islamabad. “He has remained true to his promise of letting democracy flourish in Pakistan.”

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political commentator, said it was a success for the government to have lasted five years. “But the government has left behind more problems for Pakistan than they inherited. Maybe the hope is that we will evolve into a more stable democracy in the long term, but that’s still on the distant horizon.”

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