Pakistan Election 2013: How Outrage Over U.S. Drones Could Shape The Election


What do all of the leaders of the major political parties in Pakistan have in common?

They all oppose the current U.S. drone strikes in the country. Stating public opposition to U.S. drone strikes has become a pre-requisite for Pakistani politicians hoping to succeed in the May 11 elections, reflecting public outrage over the strikes.

The leader of the incoming Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has denounced the strikes and praised the efforts of Pakistan’s army to fight the Taliban. Of course, the PPP has thus far failed to prevent the U.S. from continuing drone strikes in Pakistan during its time in power.

The largest opposition party’s leader, Nawaz Sharif, has forcefully expressed his opposition to the strike on a number of occasions, recently saying that "Drone attacks are against the national sovereignty and a challenge for the country’s autonomy and independence. Therefore, we won’t tolerate these attacks in our territorial jurisdictions."

In April 2012, Sharif and his party, the Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), refused to approve the reopening of NATO supply routes until the United States agreed to end drone strikes. The PML-N is considered a frontrunner in the upcoming general elections, leading to speculation that Sharif may become the next Prime Minister.

Perhaps none have been more outspoken against the drone policy than charismatic politician and former cricket star Imran Khan, who leads the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaaf (PTI) party. Khan held a large rally against U.S. drone policy in Pakistan in October 2012.  The next month, Khan was detained and questioned by U.S. immigration officials about his views on U.S. drone policy when attempting to visit New York.

Even the controversial former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who recently returned to Pakistan to participate in the May elections, has stated his opposition to the drone strikes: "I'm against these drone wars. It's also an infringement on our sovereignty. If the US wants to fight terrorists with drones, they should provide us with the corresponding technology so that we can carry out that fight."

Pakistan’s politicians appear to reflect the prevailing attitude of the Pakistani populace towards U.S. drone strikes. Among the members of the Pakistani populace who were aware of the strikes, 97% characterized them as a "bad" or "very bad" thing in Spring 2012. The civilian deaths due to drone strikes appear to be largely responsible for their unpopularity, although politicians also cite the infringement on Pakistan's sovereignty.

It seems that no matter which party prevails in the May elections, it will officially be against U.S. drone strikes. However, it’s not clear that their opposition will affect U.S. policy.

Since 2010, Pakistan’s foreign affairs ministry has regularly contacted the U.S. embassy in Islamabad requesting and end to the drone strikes. Formal opposition has not translated into a particularly forceful or effective stance on the issue by the Pakistani government.

And of course, it’s been widely suspected that Pakistan’s government does have some level of complicity in the drone attacks. News outlets have previously reported that WikiLeaks cables reveal several instances of Pakistani government colluding in the strikes. These instances include Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Kayani requesting additional U.S. drone assistance and former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani explicitly agreeing to allow but publicly disdain strikes. 

While Pakistan’s politicians may have taken a publicly popular stance on drones, it would require a much stronger policy shift for them to end the strikes.