What will the elections
in Pakistan mean for
regional security?

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By Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Primarily the general elections that Pakistan will be holding on Feb. 8 are about which party or parties will form governments in the four provinces and at the federal level for the next five years, but they will also determine the more complex issues of domestic and regional security. Given the complex regional geopolitical environment and a rise in the incidents of militant attacks in two provinces bordering Afghanistan and Iran, Pakistan may need a strong, stable, and effective government to deal with security challenges. That looks pretty doubtful at this time when the country prepares to go to the general elections.
In the first place, there are many doubts in the minds of the political class and the general public about the fairness of the elections, as Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) the largest and most popular party of the 2018 elections has been ousted from the contest by dubious legal, administrative, and judicial means, which is being called a form of pre-poll rigging. This may not augur well for the party or the coalition of parties that form the next government. Effectiveness of any elected government depends on popular legitimacy, if the same is seen as questionable, it may not help it address many economic, social and security issues that Pakistan confronts. A perception has taken strong root that the powerful security establishment of the country doesn’t want the PTI to return to power, and whatever has been done, apparently to fragment the party by strong-armed tactics through police and other departments of the state may reduce the Feb. 8 vote from general elections to specific ‘selections.’

Election meeting in Quetta
Election meeting in Quetta

This impression, right or wrong, won’t do any good to the future party or parties in power, and the two major parties, the PMLN and PPP, widely seen by the public as the ‘favorites’ of the establishment, are caught in a fix: they cannot attack the establishment for being a part of an invisible anti-PTI coalition to prove their credentials otherwise, leaving them vulnerable to social media attacks from the PTI. Apart from the image issue, election-day scenarios remain unpredictable as any strong mandate by any parties. The worry is that a divided mandate, which appears quite likely in the background of political divisions and confrontation, may leave very little in terms of effective state power in the hands of the elected government to influence security decisions. Therefore, on security, the future may not be different from the past, as those sectors of the state that have monopolized power will continue to define the direction of the government.

It is not easy to predict the effectiveness of post-election manoeuvring and manipulations of the largest number of independents that many see getting elected. At best, we expect a coalition government that may be weak, incoherent, vulnerable to public pressures, and too dependent for its stability and survival on ‘invisible hands.’

Pakistan is already muddling through a hybrid system, and the pendulum of power equation may swing more in the direction of the invisible hands in managing critical foreign relations and national security. Frankly speaking, the political-family based political parties run by patriarchs with no policy think-tanks or intellectual capacity to offer alternatives to security policy making, the field by default will remain occupied as it has been, by the security establishment.

It is not difficult to speculate that a domestic security agenda—anti-terrorism policy—and the regional geopolitical issues pertaining to Afghanistan, Iran and India may see continuation, and if there is any change, it will be the outcome of a decision-making process within the establishment. It’s not that they are not good at what they’ve been doing for decades, but the point is that the care-taker setup gives enormous power to the establishment, which has gone beyond decisions relating to the polls and into the legal, financial, and institutional rearrangements that it will make sure the next government carries through.

Much will depend on the competence, quality of leadership and character of civil-military relations to see who makes what kind of security policies. There is no hope in Pakistan for a paradigm shift just yet.

(Rasul Bakhsh Rais is a Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).