Editorial: A seminal moment for Pakistan

However inadequate the quality of Pakistan’s democracy, Saturday's parliamentary elections will be the most important for a generation

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Tomorrow’s parliamentary elections in Pakistan have been billed as the most important for a generation, and with justification. Assuming no last-minute interventions or delays, this will be the first time that power has been transferred from one democratically elected government to another. However inadequate the quality of Pakistan’s democracy, this is no mean feat for a country that is so disparate and has experienced such turbulence since the day of its birth.

The turbulence continues – with unavoidable implications for the outcome of this weekend’s voting. Last week, the chief prosecutor investigating the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was shot dead. Not only did the murder focus attention on the popular Ms Bhutto’s achievements, but it was also a stark reminder of the feuds endemic in Pakistan’s politics. Even more so, given that it was followed, yesterday, by the gunpoint kidnapping of the son of another former prime minister at a political rally. Such incidents, which are only the most high profile of a rash of political violence in recent months, may tilt voters towards the status quo rather than an unknown alternative.

That alternative is Imran Khan, who was hospitalised after falling off a stage earlier this week. Dismissed by many as a fly‑by‑night, the former cricketer has grown in political stature. His charitable activities are widely seen as evidence that he is capable of hard work and fulfilling his promises; his anti-corruption campaign has also gained him a following; and his opposition to the US use of drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas has been fiercer and more graphic than that of his political peers. And with Mr Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party already attracting an unexpectedly high proportion of younger voters, the publicity attending his fall may even add to his appeal.

Pakistani politics is complex and fractious. It is regional, religious and riven with all manner of sectional interests. The more votes that Tehreek-e-Insaf wins, the less likely it is that either main party – the Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, or the Pakistan People’s Party of Asif Ali Zardari (Ms Bhutto’s widower) – will be able to take power without Mr Khan. Although he says he will not take his party into a coalition, the scent of power may be too tempting to resist.

The largest blot on tomorrow’s election is that Pervez Musharraf will not be taking part. Not only does it reflect badly on Pakistan’s democracy that the former president was banned and arrested after returning to the country. His name on the ballot would have helped to prove his unpopularity with voters, finally ending his delusions of a potential comeback.

If the detention of Mr Musharraf is a negative, however, the unambiguous positive is the non-role of the military. Although tens of thousands of troops are committing to securing polling stations against threatened suicide bombings by the Pakistani Taliban, the generals have kept out of the politics.

Democracy is improving, then, but tortuously slowly. And what of the outcome this weekend? A victory for either of the big parties will mean more of the same. The involvement of Mr Khan could at least take Pakistan’s politics into new territory. There would be pluses, if Tehreek-e-Insaf’s pledges on corruption, charity and infrastructure hold good. But there are also causes for concern. Although Mr Khan is not quite the Taliban-backer that some opponents bill him, his vow to shoot down US drones (despite many in the tribal areas preferring them to the alternative, which is the Pakistani army) must raise qualms. Hints of a burgeoning personality cult are also a worry.

Whatever the result, providing that there is one, Pakistan has taken a step forward.

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