For an unstable and fragile country like Pakistan, next month's general elections are important. But they will not necessarily resolve many of the country's outstanding problems.
For instance, none of the mainstream political parties, including the secular groups, has promised to eliminate or at least enervate the influence of political Islam. No party manifesto envisions the separation of religion from politics and the affairs of the state. Pakistan's democratic institutions are willingly offering enormous space and unquestionable concessions to Islam in everyday life. I have always believed that mixing up religion with politics is Pakistan's greatest tragedy and it is certainly not a panacea to what one retired American diplomat billed as "Pakistan's Precipitous Decline."
According to the Wall Street Journal, 13 million first-time Pakistanis will cast the ballot on May 11 and 25 million registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 29 years. But this is a confused and deeply radicalized generation. These young people passionately detest democracy. "Next Generation Goes to the Ballot Box," a recent British Council Pakistan survey, revealed that the youth in Pakistan preferred Islamic Shariah rule over modern Western-style democracy. Besides Shariah law, they said they even preferred dictatorship over democracy.
While elaborating the causes of the high levels of favorability for Islamic rule among the youth, the survey cited Islam's perceived "ability to advance moral and religious values. It is also thought to be the best system for giving people their rights and freedom, for promoting tolerance, and making the country a fairer one."
Another inspiration for fervent religiosity among the youth are conservative but charismatic politicians, like Imran Khan and several sport and music superstars who have now become ultra-radical champions of Islam. For example, once termed by the Washington Post as a man with "Long hair, glamrock, cheetah print pants," pop and rock heartthrob Ali Azmat recently said in a television interview, "I'm against democracy. I'm against democracy. I'm against democracy."
The Election Commission of Pakistan (E.C.P), an independent body that conducts background checks of politicians with the help of the lower judiciary, has also come under an unprecedented wave of religious influence. The E.C.P. has barred several contenders from participating in next month's elections because they, officials maintain, lack sufficient knowledge of Islam or do not demonstrate a virtuous Islamic lifestyle. On April 15, an election tribunal even rejected the nomination papers of former prime minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf. The reason? "He is not 'Sadiq' and 'Ameen' (sagacious and righteous) enough to run for elections," Karachi-based Express Tribune hilariously quoted the officials.
There are three critical areas where Pakistan needs immediate improvement in order to become a normal and functional state. Islamization is the last thing that will help the state to achieve stability, progress and prosperity. Any future government that gives in to the Islamists or helps the youth achieve their desired Islamic form of governance or encourages the influence of religion over democratic institutions will significantly increase Pakistan's woes.
Internal stability: Two types of violence, both employed in the name of religion, have totally kept the Pakistani state hostage and dysfunctional. The Taliban attack the state in small towns and major cities with absolute impunity while sectarian groups kill hundreds of Shia Muslims each year. Their ultimate goal is to convert Pakistan into a theocratic state. Pakistan is only inches away from a total economic collapse as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (T.T.P.) consolidates its grip over Karachi, the country's most populated city and the engine of the nation's economy. Karachi has become an ideal hideout for the Taliban because they find it as a rich soil to make extortion demands from rich businessmen to run their movement. They also assume that no drone strike is going to hunt them down in a densely populated city like Karachi. The Taliban have also waged a full-fledged war against the local secular parties. Falling of Karachi in the hands of the Taliban, which is a potentially foreseeable future scenario, is going to cause extraordinary damage to the country's economy.
Human Rights: Pakistan has come under tremendous national and international criticism for the appalling state of human rights. Without containing the influence of state policies tolerant of violence in the name of religion and operations by the non-state actors, Pakistan will constantly risk its religious and sectarian minorities. The controversial blasphemy law will be used to persecute the non-Muslims. Women, such as the teen activist Malala Yousafzai, who are interested to attain education and pursue a career, will have to face the greatest burden of policies discriminating women.
Foreign policy: Pakistan's paranoid foreign policy toward India and the United States is mainly influenced by religious elements within the military and the policymaking institutions. During their election campaigns, the political parties have not pledged to take action against Jihadist groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Haqqani Network that respectively undermine Pakistan's ties with the New Delhi and Washington. Pakistan's contacts with Islamists will also genuinely worry the world about the safety of the weak Muslim state's nuclear program and the militant desire to control them. With a flawed foreign policy, Pakistan will not improve its global image as it is currently perceived to be the epicenter of global terrorism.
All political parties must commit to internal stability (leading to economic growth), respect for human rights and a balanced foreign policy. In order to accomplish that, Pakistan must secularize its democratic institutions. Without sticking to these goals, Pakistan cannot find a road-map to stability. Elections should change policies, not only the regimes. Policy overhaul is precisely what Pakistan, on its part, requires at this juncture for its survival.