Pakistan’s National Assembly elections on May 11 provided a significant victory to Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N. Despite violence, turnout was approximately 60 percent. A peaceful power transition to this opposition party means progress from the nation’s history of military coups.
Sharif was prime minister twice earlier. Most recently, he was forced out of the post in 1999 in a military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf. He and his family spent more than a decade in exile in Saudi Arabia. Musharraf himself has left government power under pressure and has been under house arrest awaiting trial for illegally detaining judges.
The election was a serious reversal for the governing Pakistan People’s Party, dominated by the Bhutto family, and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Charismatic Benazir Bhutto also served twice as prime minister. She was making a dramatic third effort to win national power when she was brutally assassinated late in December 2007.
The assassin who shot her also detonated a suicide bomb, killing and wounding a number of other people on the scene. In effect, her death took place quite literally in the midst of the wider ongoing political violence of Pakistan, a long-term serious problem which encourages understandable anxiety regarding the future course of this nation.
In recent years, Pakistan-U.S. relations have been vexed. Targeted killings of individuals by American drone aircraft have caused intense continuing controversy.
Pakistan since 9/11 has been a front line in the struggle against terrorism. Osama bin Laden’s ability to take cover in Abbottabad raised suspicion that government was complicit in hiding him. Islamabad was not informed in advance of the U.S. SEAL team 6 raid against him.
Islamic radicalism clearly is influential in Pakistan, but scope of support is unclear. The nation also possesses nuclear weapons. This vastly raises the stakes of a possible radical takeover of government. At the same time, the Pakistan and U.S. militaries cooperate especially closely regarding nuclear weapons security.
Violence to a striking degree has been an integral component of political life in Pakistan over the past several decades. In recent years, suicide bombers have tried to kill the nation’s president, prime minister and interior minister. At a rally in Karachi in October 2007, organized to welcome Benazir Bhutto home from political exile, double suicide blasts killed 140 people.
Washington has also intervened in the nation’s domestic politics in pointed terms. Bhutto was allowed to return to Pakistan as a result of direct U.S. pressure on Musharraf. In a comparable case, Nawaz Sharif remained in exile in Saudi Arabia in part because the Bush administration wanted to keep him removed from politics.
Historically, Pakistan has been a relatively solid ally of the West, a point almost always overlooked in media commentary. The British-trained military is extremely capable. During the Cold War, Pakistan was generally a conservative counter-weight to neutralist India and communist China.
In the 1950s, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles ensured that this important ally joined both the Central Treaty Organization and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, designed to replicate NATO in the Middle East and South Asia respectively. The nation was unique in having membership in both alliances. Both are long gone, but the geostrategic importance of Pakistan continues.
While media emphasize Islamabad-Washington strains, threats of Islamic radicalism, and incidents of brutal violence, reality – as usual - is more complex, and more promising.