What does Pakistan's political milestone mean?

  • 18 March 2013
  • From the section Asia
Media captionRaja Pervez Ashraf speaks to the nation in a televised address, saying: "No one will be able to harm democracy in the future"

Pakistan has finally crossed a major political hurdle.

The government led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has completed its full five-year term in office - a first for a civilian government in Pakistan's 66-year history.

And all indicators point to the country's first-ever civilian-to-civilian transfer of power, likely to happen sometime in May.

"It is an honour for me… to bring to the nation the tidings of democratic continuity," Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said in his farewell address on Saturday night.

"Pakistan has a long history of strife between the pro-democracy and anti-democracy forces, but now, with God's grace, the democratic forces have finally achieved victory," he said.

But is this really such a big deal?

Since 2008, when this government came to power, the country has seen increased violence by Taliban and sectarian groups. A separatist insurgency in the south-west has not eased, and both the economy and the energy situation have worsened.

Soon after the prime minister's address television channels carried live broadcasts from the streets of Lahore and Karachi, where the public mood was one of anger over corruption, the bad economy and faulty public services.

The reaction of political commentators and analysts was mixed though, with many holding the paradoxical civil-military relationship as the reason for the government's perceived failures.

Author and analyst Ayesha Siddiqa Agha says it has been "far from a perfect run to the finish line, given that the first prime minister of the regime, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was eased from power by the judiciary".

Judicial activism

The judiciary is seen as having single-mindedly hounded Mr Gilani to make an official request to the Swiss government to re-open corruption cases against President Zardari.

Image caption Mr Gilani was found guilty of contempt by the courts, forcing him from power

Last year Mr Gilani was symbolically convicted when he refused to comply, leading to his disqualification.

The judiciary has continued to intervene in high-profile executive affairs through what is called "suo-motu" jurisdiction - the power of the higher courts to oversee matters they deem to be of public interest.

This has continued to disrupt the normal functioning of the government throughout its tenure.

The media's overwhelming support for judicial activism has not only put the government on the back foot, it has also kept nibbling away at its credibility and legitimacy.

The military, which has been traditionally suspicious of the PPP, embarked on a defiant course as early as July 2008 when it refused to abide by the government's move to place the country's maverick ISI intelligence service under civilian control.

A year later, it made the unprecedented move of publicly opposing a five-year $7.5bn (£4.9bn) American aid bill that as a precondition required the military to refrain from "subverting the political or judicial processes of Pakistan".

The aid was negotiated by the PPP government through its ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, and the legislation, known as the Kerry-Lugar bill, was publicly praised by President Zardari in a newspaper article.

Many say the military's move over the so-called "memogate" scandal in 2011 was meant to get the scalps of both Mr Zardari and Mr Haqqani by painting them as "unpatriotic".

The judiciary played a major role in highlighting the scandal by setting up an inquiry into the affair.

The scandal revolved around accusations that the two men had written a memo asking US officials to prevent the Pakistani military from staging a coup against the civilian government.

While Mr Haqqani left his job, insiders say President Zardari made a stand and "conveyed to proper quarters that he will only go down fighting with an assault rifle in his hand".

Analysts believe that this "state of siege" undermined the government's ability to make bold moves on the economy and public services.

"You don't expect a government to perform better when political survival has been its chief concern," said Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst and expert on defence affairs.

Small steps

He says the government's failure to resuscitate the economy is in large part due to its failure to curb militancy which can also be partially blamed on the military and the political opposition.

Image caption Pakistan continues to be racked by sectarian violence and a Taliban insurgency

"Some elements in the armed forces are still reluctant to deal a final blow to the militants" and probably because of this "the major opposition parties have avoided developing a common narrative against them," he says.

So the only achievements the government can showcase, as Prime Minister Ashraf did in his farewell address, are the precedents it has set in terms of democratic infrastructure and surviving without a coup.

Pakistan, it seems, has become too challenging for the military to want to govern. It has continued to work behind the scenes to manipulate foreign and security policy but has invariably backed off when resistance got tough.

This, for many, is decidedly a step forward.

In addition, this government has made some far-reaching amendments to the law to restore to parliament the powers that military regimes had invested in individuals.

An otherwise harshly critical editorial in Pakistan's widely-read Dawn newspaper concludes by acknowledging these achievements.

"If there is any hope the last five years can inspire," it says, "it is that Pakistan has finally taken a step forward in the long, hard process of building a democracy that will serve its people."