By most accounts, Nawiz Sharif will become the next prime minister of Pakistan following general elections held this weekend. This is certainly a positive step for Pakistan, but we must remember that elections do not equal democracy. Before the typical optimism sets in, there is a long road to democratic consolidation in Pakistan. Moreover, it is important to understand that elections in unstable and historically violent nations can be an impediment to democracy if the necessary institutions have eroded or have yet to be established.
Elections do not fix governance or institutions. Despite the hope that followed Egypt’s revolution, many believed it was too early to jump immediately into elections. Considering the current state of political affairs in the country, their fears have materialized. The failure to enact constitutional reform before elections was a major failure of democratic transition in Egypt. The rules of the game were not established before elections took place. Therefore, victor could operate under their own rules. In 2007, elections in Gaza (which by most accounts were free and fair) turned into a mandate to squash the opposition. In Russia for example, the opposition has been regularly undermined by electoral regulations and institutions, which has also simultaneously strengthened the party in power, United Russia. In these cases, elections themselves can actually serve an authoritarian regime. It is a way to increase legitimacy both abroad and domestically by giving the appearance of a democratic process without those in power putting much at risk.
There are reasons to believe Pakistan is on a better path though. For one, this is the first successful transition from one elected government to another in Pakistani history and at the moment it seems to be relatively successful and peaceful. While violence and accusations of fraud marred the pre-election time frame, democratic consolidation in a country like Pakistan will be gradual at best. By some viewpoints, it could actually be signaling the health of the democratic system and the eventually lead to a drive for reforms in Pakistan. Even the violence perpetuated by the Pakistani Taliban immediately before the election could further isolate the group and other extremists. Although secular parties were certainly the primary target of violence from extremist groups, religious political party Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, which had been spared by terrorist organizations in past, was not exempt from being targeted this time around. This could signal a broad coalition against extremist groups like the Pakistani Taliban in the near future.
Pakistan is still missing some of the key characteristics of a democracy. For one, the central government is not capable of controlling large swaths of its territory and is unable to stop terrorism both in cities and in rural areas. The country also features pervasive culture of corruption that has long affected both politics and the economy. The inability to rein in these threats means an inability to protect individual rights and enforce contracts, two important features of liberal democracies. The suggestion that Sharif may be unwilling or unable to rein in insurgent groups is troublesome even beyond a purely U.S.-centric point of view. A liberal, consolidated democratic government must have room for viable opposition and Sharif’s main electoral opponent seems poised to take on that role head on. In the end, it’s all about which perspective you will take. At best, it should be one of cautious optimism.