In Depth: Pakistan



With over 180 million citizens, only five countries in the world have a larger population than Pakistan.Pakistan Flag Icon

Divided in 1947’s Partition from India when both countries received independence from the United Kingdom, and separated from ‘East Pakistan’ — today’s Bangladesh — after a bloody 1971 war, Pakistan sits at the heart of South Asia as a key to not only regional, but also global security.

That makes it one of the most important of 2013’s world elections.

The country shares a border along its southwest with Iran, a country under sanction from the European Union, the United States and others and a potential geopolitical hotspot over its nuclear weapons program.  The country shares a long, mountainous border with Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been engaged in military operations to keep the Taliban at bay since October 2001, though troops are set to leave later this year and its president, Hamid Karzai, is expected to step down after next spring’s presidential election.  Of course, Pakistan shares its eastern border with India, and its northeastern border with the contentious province of Jammu and Kashmir that have soured Indian-Pakistani relations for years, and which has taken on global security significance since the late 1990s when first India, then Pakistan, became nuclear-armed powers.

Where India remained closer to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Pakistan was always a U.S. ally, a role that’s continued throughout the post-Cold War era.  That’s been especially true since the 2001 terrorist attacks — U.S. military action in Afghanistan has so routinely involved close coordination with Pakistani military advisers that U.S. security experts now casually speak of the ‘Af-Pak’ security theater, and Pakistan has been a lethally familiar target of U.S. drone strikes.  In 2010, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was discovered and killed not in his home country of Saudi Arabia or in nearby Afghanistan, but in a compound in Abbottabad, in Pakistan.

It’s a country that’s struggled to find a balance between too-often corrupt civilian leadership and overeager military leadership, and its recent political history is marked by seesawing between military coup leaders and democratically elected politicians.  The current government of Pakistan, however corrupt and/or unpopular, is only the first government in Pakistan’s post-independence history to serve a full five-year mandate.  Most recently, general Pervez Musharraf, the army chief of staff, took military power in 1999 and governed until 2008 as a steadfast ally of U.S. president George W. Bush.

In advance of elections in February 2008, two former prime ministers in exile, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, returned to Pakistan to campaign for office.

Bhutto, the leader of the center-left, urban-based Pakistan People’s Party (PPP, پاکستان پیپلز پارٹی‎), was the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a Pakistani prime minister in the 1970s who was controversially executed in 1979 by a military-led government.  Bhutto had served as prime minister twice — from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996, before spending much of the next decade in exile during the Musharraf era.  Bhutto was tragically assassinated in December 2007, however, which, in part, led to her party’s victory in the 2008 elections.

Sharif, the leader of the center-right, rural-based Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N, اکستان مسلم لیگ ن), served as prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and again from 1997 to 1999.  Sharif, in fact, had appointed Musharraf as his army chief of staff, only to be overthrown in due course by Musharraf.

Despite the return of civilian government five years ago, the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence wield massive power within Pakistan, essentially dictating security and foreign policy, while retaining a key role in domestic matters and not insignificant influence in the Pakistani economy as well.  The current army chief of staff, Ashfaq Kayani, has largely remained aloof from directly engaging political discourse, though his term ends in November 2013 — meaning that the new government will be responsible for choosing his successor.

So what’s at stake in the May 11 elections?

The election will determine the composition of the  National Assembly (ایوان زیریں پاکستان‎), the lower house of the Majlis-e-Shura ( مجلس شوریٰ‎), Pakistan’s parliament.  Although the National Assembly has 342 members, 70 of the seats are set aside for women and religious minorities, so only 272 members will be elected directly — as you might guess, that makes it even more difficult for any single party to win a majority of the National Assembly.  Each member is elected to a five-year term on a first-past-the-post basis in single-member constituencies (though the National Assembly can be dissolved earlier with the consent of the president and prime minister).

The election will also determine the membership of each of the provincial assemblies in Pakistan’s four major provinces:

  • Punjab, which comprises 54% of Pakistan’s population, is the strategic Pakistani heartland.  Its residents, who are over 97% Muslim, predominantly speak Punjabi.  It’s home to  though it features to the country’s capital Islamabad and Lahore, a city of key historical importance to Pakistan.  
  • Sindh, home to 22% of Pakistan’s population and more cosmopolitan, given the presence of Pakistan’s largest city and its coastal financial hub, Karachi.  A majority of the population speaks Sindhi, and while the province is over 90% Muslim, there’s a small Hindu minority.
  • Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, home to 13% of the population, crawls across Pakistan’s northwest, and is predominantly Pashtun, with Pashto the major language.  The area includes between 1 and 2 million Afghan refugees, though the province excludes much of the actual border with Afghanistan, which is separately administered as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
  • Balochistan, home to just 5% of the population, is a relatively spare expanse that includes a number of different groups — a bare majority of its residents speak Balochi, and just over a quarter speak Pashto, with small amounts of Sindhi and Punjabi speakers.

Pakistan provinces

So who are the major parties and figures contesting the national elections?

PPP. Although Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, became Pakistan’s president in September 2008, his popularity has waned following multiple allegations of corruption, and he nearly found himself impeached and removed from office.  As a result, he largely transferred many of the powers of the Pakistani presidency, as an institutional matter, to the prime minister.  The government’s first prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gillani, served until June 2012, when he was removed by Pakistan’s supreme court, retroactively disqualified as prime minister due to his refusal to facilitate a graft case against Zardari.  His successor, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, a former water minister, led the government as prime minister through the end of the government’s natural term in March 2013.  The PPP-led government of the past five years remains relatively unpopular with voters on nearly every basis — unemployment, inflation and poverty are high, GDP growth is low, and many citizens in Pakistan lack basic access to water, electricity, health care and education.  Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, the son of Zardari and Benazir Bhutto, remains the co-leader of the party along with his father, though at age 24, he’s too young to contest the 2013 elections.

PML-N.  Sharif’s party is widely expected to return to power and Sharif himself is expected to become Pakistan’s next prime minister, largely on the strength of his party’s rural base in Punjab province, where polls show that the PML-N is far and away the favorite to win many of the seats in Pakistan’s largest province.  Shahbaz Sharif, his brother, has served as chief minister of Punjab province since 2008, and is also widely favored to win reelection.  Sharif has pledged that if elected, he’ll appoint the highest ranking official to succeed Kayani as army chief of staff in order to make the decision as apolitical as possible.  He’s also waged a campaign largely targeted at economic reforms.

PTI.  Former cricket star Imran Khan founded the secular, anti-corruption, liberal Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice or PTI, پاکستان تحريک) in 1996, though this year looks to be his breakout year.  Though polls aren’t exactly reliable, the PTI may well win more seats than the PPP, with voters disenchanted by both the Bhutto-controlled PPP and its corruption and the PLM-N.  Khan’s stridently nationalist stance against U.S. drone strikes has made for some extremely odd bedfellows, and some of the most radical, violent elements in Pakistani public life have, if not exactly endorsed Khan, shared common cause with him.  Nearly alone among parties, the Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban) has made it clear that, despite a violent campaign against most civilian parties, it will not attack Khan and PTI events.

MQM.  The more liberal, urban-based Muttahida Quami Movement (متحدہ قومی موومنٹ) is an almost entirely Karachi-based party with a potent, urban political machine that’s long made it the dominant force in local Karachi politics.  Nationally, it has typically aligned itself in PPP-led coalitions.

PML-Q.  During the Musharraf era, a small band of PML-N centrists broke off to form their own cohort in support of Musharraf, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) (پاکستان مسلم لیگ ق, or the PML-Q).  Though it has now abandoned Musharraf and it is running as a coalition partner of the PPP, it’s set to be virtually wiped out.

Musharraf.  Hoping to return to Pakistani politics, Musharraf returned earlier this spring from ‘self-imposed exile’ to lead a movement he formed in 2010, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML, آل پاکستان مسلم لیگ).  Immediately after returning to the country, however, Musharraf has encountered nothing but trouble.  He is now under house arrest and faces serious charges that stem from his time in power, including treason over dismissing Pakistan’s supreme court in 2007 and charges that he failed to provide sufficient protection against Bhutto’s assassination in 2007 as well.  Though his popular support was already negligible, he’s been barred from running in the elections and one court has issued a ruling barring him from Pakistani politics for life.  His continued presence remains a significant difficulty for the Pakistani military, who don’t want to interfere with Pakistan’s judiciary, but also don’t want a precedent that could open additional military leaders to civil or criminal charges.  How to handle Musharraf will be one of the more delicate challenges for Pakistan’s next government.

Local parties.  Aside from the Karachi-based MQM, several local parties are worth noting.  The Awami National Party (ANP, عوامی نيشنل پارٹی‎ in Urdu, ملي عوامي ګوند‎ in Pashto) plays a significant role in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as the largest Pashtun party in the country.  Like the MQM and other smaller parties, it is also part of the PPP-led governing coalition, and it’s extremely anti-Taliban, pro-U.S. and widely supports the Karzai government in neighboring Afghanistan, stances that have made its leaders and members frequent targets of attacks by Taliban sympathizers.  The Balochistan National Party (بلوچستان نيشنل پارٹی) is perhaps the most muscular party in Balochistan — it’s not based on ethnic identity like the ANP, but is a regionalist party based on the principle of greater autonomy and local control in Balochistan.  Pakistan has an Islamist party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (جمیعت علمائے اسلام‎) but its religious conservative bent attracts surprisingly few supporters.

The current breakdown of the National Assembly is as follows:

pakistan assembly

Here’s all of Suffragio‘s coverage of politics in Pakistan:

Pakistan’s new president: Who is Mamnoon Hussain?
July 30, 2013

How the U.S. drone strike on the Pakistani Taliban undermines Sharif’s government
May 31, 2013

In one year, South Asia and the Af-Pak theater as we know it will be transformed
May 28, 2013

Can Nawaz Sharif and Ishaq Dar fix Pakistan’s sclerotic economy?
May 22, 2013

The foreboding political geography of Pakistan’s general election results
May 14, 2013

Six reasons why everyone in the United States should know who Nawaz Sharif is
May 13, 2013

Ten questions for Pakistan’s May 11 general election
May 10, 2013

Amid the PPP’s leadership crisis, where is Bilawal Zardari Bhutto?
May 9, 2013

Despite his tumble, Imran Khan is the key to Saturday’s Pakistani election
May 9, 2013

How does Pakistan hold a normal election campaign in the middle of widespread terrorism?
May 9, 2013

Musharraf didn’t need the Peshawar High Court to render him politically irrelevant
May 5, 2013

More about Pakistan’s ‘milestone’ and a preview of its upcoming May 11 elections
March 20, 2013

U.S. Justice Department memo justifies targeted killings of U.S. citizens abroad
February 5, 2013

Khan ‘peace rally’ near Waziristan border has implications for politics in Pakistan and beyond
October 8, 2012

Everything you need to know about the showdown between the Pakistani People’s Party and the Supreme Court of Pakistan
August 15, 2012

As expected, BJP loses Karnataka state elections to surging Congress


Votes from Sunday’s elections in the Indian state of Karnataka were counted today and, as polls suggested, the troubled government of the conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) has overwhelmingly lost.India Flag Iconkarnataka flag

The Indian National Congress (Congress, or भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) has won 121 seats — an absolute majority — among the 223 seats up for election in the Karnataka legislative assembly, the Vidhan Sabha (विधान सभा).  In contrast, the BJP lost 72 seats and now holds just 40.


So what do the results mean for Indian national politics?  As with most special elections and regional and local elections, it’s hard to extrapolate trends from a local election for national significance.  But given that India’s national leaders, including very likely its next prime minister, all campaigned in Karnataka, there are some points worth noting, with India’s own national elections set to take place before May 2014.

First, critics of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, both inside and outside the BJP, will have an argument that Modi’s brand of campaign magic isn’t transferable outside his own state.  Modi campaigned vigorously in the final days of the campaign, and he’s widely seen as the frontrunner to lead the BJP in next year’s general election and even a slight frontrunner to become India’s next prime minister.  But the BJP in Karnataka was always facing an uphill battle, so Modi’s failure to change the dynamic is no more or less indicative of his national appeal than Rahul Gandhi’s inability to help Congress win last year’s elections in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.

Second, the Karnataka election was the first state election since Rahul (pictured above) became the vice president of Congress, so a loss or a closer-than-expected race might have demonstrated that Congress’s brand — and the Gandhi brand — is wearing thin nationally.  That didn’t happen, so from Rahul’s perspective, the election is a success.

Perhaps the most important lesson is the anti-incumbent mood, and it wouldn’t be surprising if many of Karnataka’s voters, who just ejected a BJP government this week, will be equally keen to eject the national Congress-led government next year — a government that’s been in office nearly a decade and has received much criticism, even abroad, for a drop in India’s economic growth and its relative lack of energy in pursuing economic reforms.

Back in Karnataka, however, attention will now turn to the next chief minister of a state that remains a technology-fueled economic star within India.   Continue reading As expected, BJP loses Karnataka state elections to surging Congress

Video of the day: Mulcair knows the money’s in the banana stand

It’s been a tough few weeks for the New Democratic Party in Canada, what with the surge of newly elected Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau pushing his once dominant party back into third place in polls.Canada Flag Icon

But NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who as the head of the second-largest party in the House of Commons, is also the leader of the opposition, pulled out a reference to the television series Arrested Development today while questioning what happened to government funding under Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper:

[Mulcair] was wondering where $3.1 billion in unaccounted anti-terrorism spending went when he uttered this gem:

“So the question is, is the money just in the wrong filing cabinet, is it hidden in the minister’s gazebo, is the money in the banana stand?”

Thanks to Giancarlo Di Pietro for the tip.

Who is Roberto Azevêdo? (And does he matter?)

The only dispute between México and Brazil since the emergence of the World Trade Organization is a minor matter — Brazil opened a case in 2000 when it accused México of enacting anti-dumping measures on electronic transformers that were tougher than allowed under the WTO agreement.  Brazil, as it turned out, sought consultations with México, and the case never proceeded to a full WTO panel.Mexico Flag IconWTO flagbrazil

But this week’s seen the conclusion of a contest between the two Latin American countries with much more wide-ranging consequences than policy on electronic transformers — the final round to select a new director-general, and it’s a contest that Roberto Azevêdo, a Brazilian diplomat and trade representative, has won the final nomination for the job, and will likely be officially confirmed as the next director-general on May 14.

Azevêdo defeated former Mexican trade minister Herminio Blanco, in a contest between two men that represent the two largest economies in Latin America.  As Brazil’s man in Geneva for the past five years, Azevêdo won the post in large part due to his status as a knowledgeable WTO insider.  Blanco, who helped draft the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s among the United States, Canada and México, had more high-level experience in government (Azevêdo has never been a cabinet-level minister in Brazil’s government), but has spent his time out of government in the private sector, not in Geneva.

To a degree, the showdown marks the growing, if friendly, rivalry between México and Brazil — the Mexican economy, with a GDP of $1.76 trillion, and an estimated 2012 growth rate of 3.8%, is expected to overtake Brazil’s economy in the next decade.  With a GDP of $2.36 trillion, Brazil remains the largest economy in Latin America, and it’s forecast to improve on a paltry 2012 GDP growth rate of 1.7%.

Azevêdo’s win demonstrates that Brazil, one of the four initially identified ‘BRIC’ emerging economies, remains a widely respected player in global economic policymaking, despite its economy’s recent stumbles and a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward global trade from its center-left presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, though Brazil was a founding member of the South American free trade bloc, Mercosur (Mercado Común del Sur) in 1991.  Blanco’s loss is a rare diplomatic setback to Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office less than six months ago and has already enacted a whirlwind of domestic reforms that have made his country once again a darling of international investors.

Azevêdo will succeed Pascal Lamy, the Frenchman who’s been the WTO’s director-general since 2005, and he’ll take over the organization at a time when its role in global trade seems to be on the decline.  The Doha round of negotiations, which began way back in November 2001, now seem nearly hopeless, with the WTO members split between the developed world and the developing world.

Indeed, the developed/developing struggle came to define the final round of the race to become the next director-general, with the United States, the European Union, Japan and South Korea allegedly backing México’s Blanco, and China and the rest of the developing world backing Brazil’s Azevêdo.  Despite the divide, U.S. and E.U. officials were never intensely opposed to Azevêdo, who will become the first Latin American director-general of the WTO (or its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and the first director-general from the ‘global south’ since Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi held the job from 2002 to 2005.

But the last major Doha negotiations broke down in July 2008, and they haven’t resumed in any significant way since the global financial crisis that exploded later that year.  While the WTO has seen its membership grow by 17 since the Doha round began (including China in 2001, Saudi Arabia in 2005, Vietnam in 2007 and Russia in 2012), many countries have moved toward bilateral and regional trade accords.  Some WTO proponents fear that such smaller trade agreements undermine the role of the global trade regime, though proponents argue that regional agreements work toward the same underlying goals of greater free trade among the world’s nations.

In particular, the United States is kicking off talks for two of the most ambitious regional trade agreements in U.S. trade history that would far outweigh the impact NAFTA made in the 1990s — the Trans-Pacific Partnership among various Asian, North American and South American nations and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the European Union and the United States. Continue reading Who is Roberto Azevêdo? (And does he matter?)

We’re starting to see what Madurismo will look like in Venezuela


It’s been nearly three weeks since I returned from Caracas to cover the Venezuelan presidential campaign, but the post-election situation there remains far from becalmed, unfortunately. Venezuela Flag Icon

Here’s a quick review of where things stand after another week that was, wherever you stand on the Venezuelan political spectrum, not a very good week for Venezuela and its political and legal institutions:

  • The opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who leads the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) coalition, is taking his challenge directly to Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice that contests over 2.3 million votes in over 5,700 polling stations from the April 14 vote.  A planned audit of the election will continue under the supervision of Tibisay Lucena, the head of Venezuela’s national electoral council, though Capriles and the MUD opposition have rejected the terms of the audit.  Although the audit will recount the votes, it will not audit aspects of the voting process, such as voter signatures and fingerprints, that could confirm that the votes were legitimately cast, not just properly tallied.  Capriles and his allies have also alleged a wider range of election-day concerns, including voter intimidation and dumped ballot boxes.  
  • In Venezuela’s Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), which is dominated by the chavista party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela), opposition deputies have not only been prohibited from speaking, but were attacked in a vicious assault last week on the floor of the National Assembly while its chavista president, Disodado Cabello looked on with a smile.  No matter if you’re in Ukraine or in Venezuela, brawling politicians on the floor of a parliament are always unseemly:
  • Meanwhile, the government of president Nicolás Maduro has taken an increasingly harsh political line against the United States, attacking U.S. president Barack Obama for ‘meddling’ in internal Venezuelan affairs.  Maduro has railed against the Obama administration, which has not yet recognized Maduro’s victory on April 14, and which has aired concerns about the vote.  Maduro’s new administration has added additional tension to U.S.-Venezuelan relations by imprisoning a U.S. documentary maker on charges of inciting political violence in Venezuela.  Maduro, who suggested during the campaign that the United States may have caused the cancer that killed his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, has argued that the United States is fomenting post-election violence as well.  For good measure, he’s also accused former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe of attempting to assassinate him and he’s even attacked Peru’s foreign minister Rafael Roncagliolo.
  •  Maduro’s new cabinet, appointed in late April, looks much like the previous one, with many familiar high-level chavista faces retaining much of the power in Venezuelan government.  Rafael Ramírez remains the country’s energy minister and head of the national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA); Elías Jaua, a former vice president, will remain foreign minister; and Cabello remains the president of Venezuela’s national assembly.  The longtime head of the finance and planning ministry, Jorge Giordani, will remain merely planning minister and Nelson Merentes, formerly the head of Venezuela’s central bank, will become finance minister, a post he held briefly in the early 2000s as well.  Merentes’s promotion has caused some optimism internationally, and Merentes is seen as more of a pragmatist than Giordani and dislikes Venezuela’s currency controls, which have artificially skewed the flow of dollars to importers.  It’s not clear, however, that Giordani will relent control over economic policymaking, given that he’s been the economic czar of Venezuelan government since virtually the beginning of the Chávez era.

What is the sum impact of all of this?

So far, it seems that madurismo is the same as chavismo, but with less charisma, fewer petrodollars and the possibility of a more violent government than under Chávez.

With no signs that Capriles is giving up his challenge, Maduro faces a real legitimacy problem, and he’ll continue to do so as long as Capriles challenges the election’s audit process in a court system that’s widely seen as tilted more toward politics than toward impartial interpretation of the law.  In the best case scenario, chavismo somehow lost 600,000 supporters between Chávez’s reelection in October 2012 and Maduro’s own election in April.  In the worst case scenario, Maduro and the chavista government simply bought, scared or muscled enough votes last month to steal the election.  It’s not an enviable position, especially given Venezuela’s ongoing economic troubles.

But Maduro also faces serious challenges within the PSUV and the ruling chavista elite.   Continue reading We’re starting to see what Madurismo will look like in Venezuela