Defying every prediction, the Pakistan People’s Party, which came to power in February 2008, has managed to complete a full term in office. That this is history-making says much about a country that for half its existence has been ruled by the military, which dominates national affairs even in times of civilian rule, to the point that no previous elected government survived five years. Indeed, this is now seen as the PPP government’s biggest achievement. To give it credit, the government took many steps to institutionalise democracy. Notably, it brought in amendments to cleanse military interventions in the Constitution, reducing the powers of the President, and restoring the executive supremacy of the Prime Minister; provinces got more powers. But as the country prepares for the next elections on May 11, the PPP, which spent most of its term looking over its shoulder at shadows, both real and imagined, has little else to show on governance.
President Asif Ali Zardari’s early reluctance to reinstate judges sacked by his military predecessor Pervez Musharraf ensured that when Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary was eventually restored, the government was locked in a debilitating battle with the Supreme Court, giving rise to damaging rumours that the judiciary was a proxy for the Army. The government’s attempts to reclaim foreign policy from the military sent its relations with the United States on a roller coaster ride, while ties with India plunged after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and are still to recover fully. Pakistan’s economy is in a shambles, in large part due to faulty policies over the years, but also owing to the terrible security climate and the political uncertainty in the country. The government was unable to shake off its reputation for corruption. And it was simply beyond its capacity to rein in militant groups — born out of the military’s pact with Islamist extremists — that have ferociously turned inward on Pakistan’s own citizens. A Bonapartist looking for willing instruments could have made use of political adventurers such as Tahir ul Qadri. The Army is still to live down the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan but if there was no coup, it could well have been because the country is so messy that the military would rather let politicians take the rap for it. The PPP could blame the previous military regime for its failures. After the country’s first democratic transition — to participate in which even the disgraced Musharraf has made bold to return from self-exile — the weight of people’s expectations will fall squarely on the next government. The political party or group that comes to power has to deliver, or risk damaging Pakistan’s tiny shoots of democracy.