Middle East

Pakistan's first democratic transition of power

A milestone has been set in the 66-year history of Pakistan, as its democratically elected government completes its five-year term in office Saturday, and is set to relinquish power to a caretaker before new elections.

The country is expected to go to the polls in early May, on a date yet to be decided by President Asif Ali Zardari. More than 85 million registered voters, less than half of the 180 million population, are eligible to vote to elect a new parliament - the first time in the country's history transitioning from one democratically elected government to another since it gained independence from British Raj in 1947.

“Direction set by the present parliament will go a long way in the legislative history of the country," Yasmeen Rashid, member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, told Fox News.

"The parliament promoted the democratic process and the coming governments will get guidelines from this system."

The nuclear-armed nation has had three eras of military rule derailing democracy, which damaged the country’s ability to politically handle domestic issues and diplomatically address international community concerns.

"The [military] dictators in the past badly deteriorated the economic and social skeleton of the country and the people were expecting much more from the democratic parliament," Sardar Mehtab Ahmed Khan, leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N said.

The people of Pakistan had high expectations from the democrat government after General Pervaiz Musharraf, former president of the country, who came to power through a bloodless military coup in 1999, resigned in 2008. But all they received was higher taxes, power cuts, shortage of gas, price hike, and no hope of a relief package for the common man.

Khan told Fox News that the parliament, treasury and opposition has failed to meet the expectations of the masses, but expressed hope the public would continue to contribute strengthening the democratic system in the next elections.

Pakistan continues to battle militancy, the majority of it home-grown terrorism, which has left thousands of civilians and soldiers dead. Sectarian violence targeting the minority Shi’ite Muslim community, a chronic energy crisis, a poverty rate over 40 percent, lack of jobs, a crippled economy and rising corruption are just some of many challenges it faces.

Failures of the government overshadow much of its achievements, says Ahmed Bilal, of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. Though the outgoing regime is marred by poor governance and rampant corruption, it leaves behind “political and electoral reforms making the prime minister and the parliament stronger, giving autonomy to provinces and by giving [a right to] say to opposition parties in the formation of the Election Commission”, he says.

Zardari’s ruling PPP and its coalition partners passed at least 138 legislations and 81 resolutions including more representation and rights to women through parliament.

The government did mend its difficult relations with India, opening trade between countries, increasing cooperation and intelligence-sharing with Afghanistan, and in good faith released several Taliban prisoners from Pakistan prisons. It also revived the defunct Gwadar Port by handing it to China, and even risked U.S. sanctions by signing a deal with Iran to build a gas pipeline and oil refinery to overcome the country’s power crisis.

Pakistan has a very vital and complicated relations with the U.S., and the next elected government may be comprised of politicians who have towed an anti-U.S. line to gain support.

All provincial assemblies are expected to be dissolved by March 19, and a caretaker government headed by a new prime minister acceptable to all major political stakeholders will take charge in coming days if a consensus is reached.