A partnership of HuffPost and the

A Pakistani Spring Since Birth?

In 2011, there were few on the outside who could find space for optimism with Pakistan, even some of my Pakistani friends living in the States. "People there just don't want anything to work. What the hell is wrong with us? It's our own damn fault," a Pakistani-American friend tells me. For Pakistan, 2012 started out with even more ominous news exposing the deteriorating relationships between the U.S., Chief of Army Staff Kayani, and President Zardari's PPP-led government. Most recently, in light of the 'memo-gate' scandal, PM Gilani dismissed the secretary of defense, Naeem Khalid Lodhi and subsequently, General Kayani and ISI chief Pasha have intensified their manipulation of the judiciary as a proxy to dismantle the civilian government without a direct military coup, before Senate elections in March. The outcome then of the next series of national elections in Pakistan in 2013 will take on a heightened significance. Yet as we look ahead, it will become increasingly important to explore Pakistan's election history and this history's influence on current election trends ahead of the 2013 election year.

The Politics Ahead: Imran Khan as a Catalyst for Change in Pakistan?

Some today argue that a new tide in Pakistan's democratic evolution is coming, and that is the rise of Imran Khan and his PTI party. Data from a 2011 Pew Survey shows that Imran Khan, post Bin Laden killing, has a 68 percent support among Pakistanis, Kayani has 52 percent ( decreased from last year) and 63 percent views Nawaz Sahrif favorably. Zardari and his PPP led government have only 11 percent favorability and 92 percent are dissatisfied with the government. Thus, Khan has a current advantage over traditional players of the PPP and PML-N and even the military leadership and the military leadership maintain a dominant public favorability over the current civilian government. Yet does Imran Khan's rise suggest a coming change in Pakistan's political system?

Pakistan's troubled political traditions suggest that the potential rise of Imran Khan and any new social-political change brought by the electoral system will continue to depend on the presence of unchallenged political legacies that have in the past stunted positive evolution of the country's economic and political systems. These include: local issue domination over national issues; the prevalence patronage networks in which patronage delivery beats out delivery of national policies; civilian subordination to the military; economic and demographic challenges related to the lack of taxation; and constitutional constraints on liberal economic and political development in which the military, in partnership with Islamists, are able to manipulate a malleable constitution.

Co-opting the Local Over the National

Pakistan's electoral system was founded by the British, whose colonial administrators would provide patronage, (in the form of revenue, land grants, titles, pensions), to local notables in return for political stability. Scholar Alexander Wilder writes that, since its birth, this was a system of the British for co-opting local power and containing tribal, religious, ethnic groups. The impact of the system survives today in 21st century Pakistan and the system has relied more on tactics of patronage to constituents rather than strategy of policies targeting development and delivering services to its citizens.

Patronage networks and local politics in particular, still drive the pendulum which swings between a bureaucratic-dominated electoral political system and a civilian led, representative-constitutional government. The military still constrains the evolution of liberal political and economic institutions. Thus, political parties, for their very survival, will not seek to aggravate military economic dominance and patronage networks especially when the center of gravity, (the Pakistani people), hold more trust in the military than they do in the civilian government. One in five Pakistanis believe that the military should never have control of the state, according to a study by Christine Fair. Ultimately, Pakistani society trusts that the army will protect it, more so than the civilian government.

A Pakistani Spring Since Birth?

Interestingly, the harbinger of change will need to come from the 18 to 30-year-old demographic of rural and urban Pakistanis, united by concerns on national issues such as unemployment, terrorism, and rising consumer prices. From this organic activism, the army, assuming that it would not break its reputation amongst its citizens, would have to release Pakistan's economic and political potential from the weights of securitization and system of local patronage. Before a charismatic leader such as Imran Khan can introduce new political alignments, Pakistanis society will have to rediscover this power. What is essential in any type of democratization is grass roots faith in civilian rule over military rule and society's cognizance of the harm being done to its nation from the patronage-over-policy paradigm.

A noted leader of Pakistan's Lawyers Movement, said in a recent speech in New York: Pakistanis have this potential and have acted on it in the past. He stated that it was the people that voted out four dictators and stood in protest against them, and it was the people who stood up for the judiciary when the Supreme Court's powers and responsibilities were threatened. In his speech, the Pakistani lawyer reminds those of us pessimistically judging from the outside that "the Pakistani Spring has consistently been fought since birth." This may be true, and it is a legacy perhaps we in the States must be more cognizant of. So too, however, people in Pakistan must realize that the determinant for successful democratization will rest on the ability of the people of the 'Pakistani Spring' to take the crucial leap of faith needed in any democracy, and that is: faith in a constitution and civilian government over faith in the military.