Ahistoric election has just been held in Pakistan, enabling a transition from one civilian government to another for the first time in its 65-year existence. In the run-up, an orgy of violence unleashed by the Taliban threatened to overwhelm the country’s date with democracy, but democratic change was what the people wanted and they turned out in large numbers to vote out the Pakistan People’s Party, whose five-year term was marked by an abysmal absence of governance. While the Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf — led by Imran Khan — disrupted what has traditionally been a two-horse race with its heady new slogan of a New Pakistan, the electorate preferred to vest its trust in more experienced hands. The Pakistan Muslim League (N) of Nawaz Sharif — whose second term as Prime Minister was terminated by the 1999 military coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power — is on course to win enough seats in the 272-strong National Assembly to form the government. Its centre-right agenda, similar to Imran’s but offering more details and stability, clearly touched a chord in a population that is increasingly suspicious of the U.S. but also knows the country cannot live in isolation. Even so, this election offers no simple reading. The PML (N)’s mandate came almost entirely from Punjab. While that confirms the province's predominance, it questions the national character of the vote, which seems to have split along provincial lines. Official results are still coming in, but most of the PTI’s parliamentary seats were won in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, where Imran Khan’s anti-drone campaign was most effective. Neck and neck with the PTI, the PPP won mostly in Sindh, its traditional stronghold, and was routed elsewhere. The verdict in Balochistan, where turnout was low, was too fractured to offer any hope to the restive province.
Mr. Sharif knows only too well the enormity of the challenges ahead of him. In his last term, his ties with right-wing groups led him into costly Islamist adventurism. He has evolved in the last decade but members of his party still consort openly with jihadist outfits. He and his party have also sent out mixed messages on how to deal with the terrorism that is devouring Pakistan, and which threatens India and the neighbourhood. It is likely that being in power, and dealing with a world that has changed much since 2001, will help clear his vision. Where he gives most hope is in his strong and unambiguous articulation of better India-Pakistan relations, though this will depend on his stated determination to correct the civil-military imbalance, and reclaim the national agenda from the security establishment. Whether he can succeed is another question, but India will be hoping he will.