The last time a major news story broke out of Pakistan it was about a courageous schoolgirl who had been shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to assert that girls had a right to an education.
Today a country often presented as a semi-failed state overrun by Islamist militants has shown a different face following a general election in which the nation stood up and told the terrorists who have caused such mayhem in recent years how unrepresentative they are.
For Nawaz Sharif, the overwhelming winner of the election, the result is an astonishing turnaround. A Prime Minister in the 1990s, he was arrested in 1999 after a military coup and later fled into exile. Now the supporters of the so-called Lion of the Punjab have roared on his behalf, sweeping aside the old establishment dominated by the Bhutto family.
Most Pakistanis are rightly rejoicing about what they see as a hugely important moment in their country’s troubled 66 years of independence. A corrupt dynasty has been snubbed, the Taliban and its friends – who vowed to bring the election to a standstill – have been humiliated and for the first time in Pakistan’s history one civilian government has completed its mandate and handed power in an election to another. There is more good news in the strong showing of the former cricketer Imran Khan whose party looks set to take second place in parliament and become the official opposition. Mr Khan, who was badly hurt falling off a stage in the campaign, is said to be disappointed with his share of the vote. Whatever he expected to win, it can only be good for Pakistan that such a trenchant foe of corruption has received the backing of a substantial portion of the electorate. It also bodes well that the new Prime Minister congratulated him on his achievement.
While the remnants of the Bhutto clan, the supporters of the old military regime gathered around General Pervez Musharraf, and the radical Islamists lick their wounds and reflect on what a disappointment Pakistan turned out to be, it is vital that the new government capitalises on the euphoric mood to push for change.
Besides religious extremism – now shown to be lacking popular support – and endemic corruption, the real devil in Pakistan is a catastrophic shortage of energy as a result of which large parts of the country have no power for most of the day and petrol stations lie empty. Unless this hole in the economy is plugged and a serious effort made to tap unexplored energy reserves, Mr Sharif’s campaign talk of turning Pakistan into an Asian Tiger will remain empty. The energy crisis is indivisible from the issue of corruption because it is thanks to the culture of cronyism that so many wrong decisions in the energy field have been taken.
Pakistan has seen false dawns before, above all after the last general election in 2008 when voters swept the Pakistan People’s Party into office on a wave of sympathy following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The government wasted those years, which have been characterised by growing poverty and often horrific levels of urban violence. At times it has seemed as if Pakistan were adrift and the Taliban had become a form of an alternative government. Economically, and by every other useful benchmark, the gap between India and Pakistan has yawned.
The people of Pakistan, and their many friends in this country, must hope that Mr Sharif fully realises the magnitude of the task ahead of him. In the meantime, democrats the world over should raise a cheer to the hard-pressed voters of Pakistan who, in spite of it all, have not lost faith with democracy.