Pakistan has been in a permanent state of crisis since it was carved out of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Of the range of factors responsible for this state of affairs, the most important is the failure to establish a democratic system of governance. For more than half of Pakistan’s 62-year existence, the military has dominated politics and national life, stifling the development of credible democratic institutions. Even during the interregnums that have punctuated direct military rule, when civilian governments have been in power, the military has cast a long shadow over politics and the national agenda.
Yet this overweening military presence has always faced resistance from the democratic forces in society, and the political agenda still revolves around representative government. The struggle between the military’s desire to dictate the country’s course and the people’s aspirations for self-rule is by no means resolved, despite the elections of February 18, 2008— one of the few relatively clean polls in the country’s history—which brought the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to power following the assassination of its leader, Benazir Bhutto. Benazir’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, emerged as Pakistan’s most powerful politician in the wake of her death. Today he not only dominates decision-making within the PPP (and arguably wields overwhelming influence in the ruling coalition), he has also been elected to succeed General Pervez Musharraf as president.
The PPP-led government faced formidable challenges upon assuming office. Of these, four in particular stood out as critical: the restoration of the judiciary, which had been emasculated by Musharraf during the state of emergency imposed on November 3, 2007; the removal of Musharraf from the presidency; the reinvigoration of the foundering national economy; and the management of the war against jihadi extremism. Any or all of these had the potential to destabilize the new government, and its efforts to cope with them to date have produced mixed results at best. Musharraf has gone, but he remains safe from prosecution, no doubt as part of the deal that led to his peaceful resignation. The deposed judges of the senior judiciary have been reinstated, but only reluctantly and at the 11th hour, when the popular mobilization associated with the lawyers’ protest movement threatened the government’s grip on power. Zardari was also nudged into action on the judges by the military, and by both Britain and the United States. Meanwhile, the government’s other two challenges have not been addressed.
The fate of the PPP-led government, and of the nascent democratic order, will ultimately be decided by their ability to halt the country’s economic meltdown and the insurgency that has exacerbated it. If these twin problems are tackled, Pakistan may yet wriggle free of its broader morass of difficulties. If they go unchecked, however, the country could come to resemble the failed state that many analysts have predicted. Given Pakistan’s strategic importance, its possession of nuclear weapons, and its role as a base for both domestic and transnational militant groups, the stakes of the crisis are immense and growing.