LAHORE – Pakistan’s moment of political truth is fast approaching. On May 11, some 40-50 million voters will elect a new national assembly. The outcome, preceded by a spike in extremist violence, is likely to reverberate far and wide.
Pakistan’s homegrown terrorist groups know that the country is at a tipping point, and are attacking candidates and voters who favor a secular state. Hundreds of people have already been killed, and more will undoubtedly die before Election Day, targeted because, if these groups prevail, they would push what is sometimes called the “idea of Pakistan” to its logical – and extreme – conclusion.
Some 70 years ago, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, launched the movement to create an independent state for the Muslims of British India. The British colonial administration finally acquiesced, creating a country out of Muslim-majority areas. The population of what is now Pakistan was about two-thirds Muslim; the remainder were mostly Hindus and Sikhs.
That composition changed dramatically with the partition of the new states of India and Pakistan in 1947, when 14 million people moved across the newly drawn border. Eight million Muslim refugees fled India and entered Pakistan, and six million Hindus and Sikhs moved in the opposite direction. By the time this “ethnic cleansing” was over, Pakistan’s population was 95% Muslim.
Over time, an increasing proportion of this population began to demand the creation of an Islamic state in the areas that were now Pakistan. The upcoming election will determine how far the country will go along this route.
Pakistan is not the only Muslim country seeking to redefine its political and economic future. Similar processes are playing out in other large countries in the western part of the Islamic world. By contrast, other large Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have succeeded in establishing political orders that serve all segments of highly diverse populations reasonably well. That may eventually happen in the western Islamic world as well, but only after a struggle of the type occurring now in Pakistan.
The large countries in this part of the Islamic world – most notably Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey – are attempting to address four problems, the most challenging of which is to define Islam’s role in the political system.
Turkey seems to have found an answer, prodded in part by its wish to join the European Union. A conservative ruling party with deep religious roots is content to leave religion to private observance, with no direct influence on public policy. The issue remains less settled in Egypt, while in Pakistan a small but highly motivated part of the population has embraced extreme violence as a form of political expression.
The role of the military in politics also needs to be resolved. Once again, Turkey has taken the lead; in both Egypt and Pakistan, the men in uniform have returned to their barracks, but they have not lost influence over public policy.
Then there is sectarianism, particularly the growing strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims. This conflict may be exacerbated by the outcome in Syria. If Sunnis triumph there, they may become more assertive in countries that have large Shia populations. It is not often recognized that Pakistan has the world’s second-largest Shia population, after Iran, with roughly 50 million adherents. They have been mercilessly attacked in Karachi and Quetta in recent years, with more than 400 killed.
Finally, there is the question of the Muslim world’s relations with the West, particular the United States. The old post-Ottoman “grand bargain” – Western acceptance of authoritarianism in exchange for the secure flow of oil, use of sensitive sea-lanes, and some tolerance for the existence of Israel – has broken down. What replaces it will be determined by the shape of the new political order that finally emerges in the western Islamic world. In other words, more is at stake in Pakistan’s upcoming election than just the future of Pakistan.
There is growing recognition, some of it grudging, that the coalition led by the Pakistan People’s Party has managed to create a political structure built on fairly stable foundations. This is a real accomplishment in a country that was on a political roller-coaster for most of its history. But the coalition proved unable to translate political success into strong economic performance.
For the last five years, Pakistan’s annual GDP growth has averaged just 3% – half the rate needed to absorb two million new labor-force entrants every year. If growth does not pick up, the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed will swell, increasing the size of the pool from which extremist groups find fresh recruits.
The upcoming election has both nurtured hope and generated anxiety among Pakistanis. It could go either way. And, for good or bad, where Pakistan goes other Muslim countries could follow.