Global Politics

Historic election marks transition in Pakistan

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U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, left, welcomes Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the Pentagon, Dec. 3, 1998, during his first term. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Defense Department via

This weekend saw historic elections in Pakistan. Despite the violence in the run-up to the elections, which saw regular bomb blasts and the kidnapping of the son of a former prime minister, Saturday's vote marked the first time the country has transitioned from one democratically elected government to another.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to be the new prime minister, based on preliminary results.

Arif Rafiq, adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides information on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues, said Pakistanis view this as representing continuity for the country — and an opportunity for Pakistan to have political stability.

The results, Rafiq said, came in better than expected for Sharif, giving him basically a majority of seats in the Pakistani assembly — meaning he will have a fairly strong government of his own party, perhaps with a few outside coalition partners.

"That will give him some space to engage in deep and meaningful reforms that Pakistan desperately needs," he said.

The Taliban was able to play a role in the days leading up to the election, with talk that Taliban fighters were trying to battle perceived secularism in the country.

There's no indication, however, that electoral violence had any role in influencing who people voted for, Rafiq said.

"The secular partiest that were the primary targets of these militant organizations were actually polling pretty low in public opinion polls," he added.

Those parties were actually part of the previous coalition government that failed to manifest reforms and manage the country's economy.

Pakistan has a history of anti-incumbency, which seems to have manifested itself in this election, with voters punishing the secular parties — likely for their previous role in government and not because of militant attacks.

"It's really unclear how impactful terrorist violence was in terms of voter choice," Rafiq said.

Sharif governed Pakistani in the 1990s, before being ousted by Pervez Musharraf. He has a track record of authoritarianism from that time, and didn't work well with other democratic parties, but he did pursue peace with India, Rafiq said.

"Now he's looking to be a force for peace and stability in the region and also work on the basis of consensus inside his own country," Rafiq added. "What we'll see if Nawaz Sharif will try to be something of a statesman inside Pakistan and in the region."

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