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How Will Elections Impact Pakistan's Foreign

Frederic Grare, Reece Trevor DIRECTOR AND SENIOR
APRIL 4, 2013


Upcoming Pakistani elections are unlikely to fundamentally
change the countrys foreign policies, but the next civilian
government could be more cooperative.
policy rarely decides elections anywhere in the world. Pakistan is
no different. The countrys upcoming polls will most likely reflect
disappointment in the current government and hopes for a better
one, but the result is unlikely to serve as a popular mandate on
foreign policy.
And because long-term national interests and structural factors
generally determine foreign policy, such policies often persist
regardless of who holds political power. Decisionmaking on
Pakistans foreign affairs is an increasingly complex process
reflecting a growing number of interest groups and external
factors. Elections therefore affect foreign policy mostly on the
margins, but they can and do influence decisions and set the
trend for future developments.
Civil-military relations and how they influence threat perception
and the definition of the national interest will likely remain the
biggest variable in Pakistans foreign policy. And the elections will
help determine how much space civilian leaders have to operate.
The elections are unlikely to produce a wholesale change in
Islamabads thinking, but might enable a shift in how Pakistan
conducts foreign policy.
The competing political parties in Pakistan have defined their
foreign policy priorities only vaguely, and the likelihood of
coalition building will further dilute each partys ability to enact its
preferred policies.

Should the mainstream parties win an overwhelming majority,

their task will be easier in foreign policy. But if the election
produces a divided parliament with no clear majority, the
demands of coalition politics will grant more marginal parties
with more extreme viewsa disproportionate role in
policymaking. This will also allow the military and the intelligence
agencies to more easily manipulate the decision making process.
Depending on the results, Pakistans next government could be
more cooperative in its foreign relations and even show less
tolerance for state-sponsored terrorism in order to help pursue its
regional and global objectives. Such a result could, over time,
change Pakistans relations with its neighborhood and help define
a new South Asia.
The Pakistani military deserves its reputation for political
engineering. Often operating behind the scenes, it has been
known to make and unmake majorities and governments to
maintain its primacy and impose its will. Most analysts see the
army as the real decisionmaker in matters of foreign policy and
defense, even when a civilian government is in office.
Historically, the military has undoubtedly imposed major political
constraints on the definition and implementation of Pakistans
foreign policy. But it still bears noting that some high-ranking civil
servants and major political parties have traditionally shared the
militarys views on foreign policy. Nonetheless, in recent months
the civilian government has enjoyed slightly more political space
on foreign policy.
The militarys influence on foreign policy has clearly changed over
the past five years. Before 2011, the military professed its loyalty
to the democratic system and the elected civilian authorities, but
it showed a complete disregard for the governments opinion on
defense and foreign policy matters.
For example, only a few weeks into President Asif Ali Zardaris
term in 2008, Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani slammed

the new government over Zardaris remarks on a nuclear no-firstuse policy on Indian television. Similarly, Zardaris hopes of a
rapprochement with India were dashed after the Mumbai terrorist
attacks, which were allegedly engineered largely by Pakistani
security forces. And the military had almost complete autonomy
in determining Pakistans policy on Afghanistan.
However, the series of serious incidents that characterized 2011
marked an inflection point in the relationship between the military
and civilians over foreign policy. Prior to this point, the dominant
perception was that the United States and the international
community needed Pakistan much more than Pakistan needed

Things changed in 2011. The raid against Osama bin Laden and
the resulting suspicion that Pakistan may have provided shelter
for years to the most wanted man in the world contributed to
Islamabads international isolation. But things changed most
significantly after U.S. forces mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani
soldiers at a border checkpoint near Salala. Islamabads
retaliatory closure of overland supply routes for U.S. forces in
Afghanistan certainly increased NATOs costs, but it also produced
the unintended consequence of demonstrating that the United
States was capable of operating in the region without Pakistani
A growing economic crisis and the prospect of a divorce from
the United States forced Pakistans security establishment to
rethink its posture and opened up new opportunities for the
civilian leadership. For instance, the Zardari government has been
able to begin a gradual rapprochement with India. While this
policy shift would likely have been impossible without tacit
military acceptance, it was nevertheless engineered by the
civilian government on its own initiative, convincingly suggesting
an expanded role for elected civilians in foreign policy.

Even with greater space for civilian leaders to operate, the impact
of public opinion on foreign policy is surprisingly absent from most
debates on Pakistans external affairs.
William B. Milam and Matthew J. Nelson argue that populism is a
political constant in Pakistans foreign policy. They feel that the
military and its intelligence agencies cannot generate new public
beliefs, but can only shore up existing ones by suppressing
countervailing views. Pakistans elitesboth civilian and military
are properly afraid of the street and its protest power, and
essentially follow public opinion rather that direct it.
This argument undoubtedly contains an element of truth. No
system, no matter how authoritarian, can survive without a
minimal threshold of popular support. Specifically applied to
foreign policy, the argument is also valid because no Pakistani
leader can afford to run afoul of popular nationalism.

All issues implicating Pakistani sovereignty are potential

landmines for policymakers. In the past, the military has turned
this dynamic to its advantage, portraying myriad controversial
foreign policy issuesincluding the Mumbai attacksas matters
of state sovereignty in order to ensure popular backing.
Public views on foreign policy have also evolved considerably over
the past ten years, varying in both substance and intensity. For
example, most Pakistanis may not feel particularly strongly about
the Kashmir dispute, despite the issues prominent status in
Islamabads foreign policy. There is widespread sympathy for the
cause, to be sure, but support for going to war over it is much
more limited.
And public views of India have changed, often with surprising
speed. In 2004, for example, part of the public became much
more open to improving relations with India after religious political
parties were mobilized in favor of rapprochement. This allowed
Pervez Musharraf to take some relatively bold initiatives and

demonstrated that public opinion could be influenced in one

direction or another.
But even where fundamental elements of Pakistani national
interest are concerned, public opinion never dictates the
instruments of policy implementation. Political actors retain the
ability to implement policiesbe they confrontational or
cooperativeas they see fit.
In other words, there is ample space for political actors to
determine the way foreign policy is implemented.
Distinctions are apparent among the foreign policy agendas and
statements of the main political actors. The parties generally
converge in their articulations of major foreign priorities
particularly relations with the United States and India and the
Kashmir disputebut diverge significantly in their policy
Of course, public manifestos and official statements are often
both vague and mercurial, and therefore imperfect predictors of
future policies. Nevertheless, public statements serve as useful
illustrations of points of convergence and divergence in the major
actors foreign policy thinking and possible future actions.
While the major political parties generally agree about Pakistans
relationship with China, they divide sharply on relations with the
United States. The religious political parties of Jamaat Ulema-eIslam and Jamaat-e-Islami and their allies, including Tehreek-eInsaf, strongly criticize the current U.S.-Pakistani relationship. But
the mainstream partiesboth the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)
and Pakistan Muslim Leagueare more accepting of Pakistans
ties with Washington.
The religious parties never miss an opportunity to portray the
current governments foreign policy as weak, implying or
asserting that it has allowed Washington to threaten or coerce
Pakistan. In the past five years, both Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam and

Jamaat-e-Islami have called for the Pakistani government to

distance itself from United States.
These religious parties oppose alignment with non-Muslim states
and demand an end to American drone strikes. The Defense of
Pakistan Council (Difa-e-Pakistan), a collection of some 40
religious groups, political parties, and banned militant
organizations, takes an even more categorical stance, favoring a
complete end to U.S.-Pakistan relations and increased support for
the Afghan Taliban.
Tehreek-e-Insaf, led by former cricket superstar Imran Khan, is
surfing the same wave of anti-Americanism. Khan blames
successive Pakistani governments for compromising Pakistani
honor and security by working with the United States and,
according to Malik Siraj Akbar, terms U.S. assistance to Pakistan
a curse that has, in his views, transformed the Islamic Republic
into an American colony. In the same spirit, Tehreek-e-Insaf
condemns U.S. drone strikes and argues that Taliban ideology is
not a threat to Pakistan.
By contrast, none of the mainstream parties reject relations with
the United States, although they too take into account the
prominent anti-Americanism in the country. According to its
manifesto, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) will
strengthen and enhance friendly relations and deep rooted
economic ties with all countries of the world, suggesting a
broader policy of nonalignment.
Similarly, the PPP credits itself with reframing a more enduring,
balanced and clearly defined partnership with the US, rooted in
mutuality of interest and respect, while securing the largest-ever
economic assistance package for Pakistan, implying that mutual
respect was missing in the past. At no point does it question the
need for a strong relationship with the United States.

When it comes to Afghanistan, both sets of parties tend to

condemn U.S. policies toward Kabul and denounce the

consequences for Pakistan. The parties vary, however, in their

specific approaches to Afghanistan. As noted above, Tehreek-eInsaf sees no Taliban threat to Pakistan, while the PPP argues for
Pakistans outreach to the Afghan government, as well as the
opposition parties, and its support for a comprehensive
reconciliation process led and owned by the Afghans.
India occupies a distant second place on the parties lists of
priorities. The parties all identify Kashmir as the primary irritant
working with Pakistans eastern neighbor, but there are clear
divides on how best to deal with the issue and manage the
The mainstream parties all seek an expanded dialogue with New
Delhi. The PML-N references the need to resolve the Kashmir issue
in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions and endorses a
peaceful and negotiated settlement of all disputes with India,
while the PPP wants an honest and sincere dialogue. By contrast,
the religious parties demand that the most-favored-nation status
granted to India (although not yet implemented) be revoked.
Tehreek-e-Insaf, however, takes an original position designed to
satisfy its relatively broad electoral base. To appease the Islamist
wing of the party, it takes a hardline on Kashmir and strongly
condemns drone strikes. At the same time, it acknowledges its
more moderate liberal elements in its advocacy of cordial working
relations with India and support for an improved relationship with
the United States based on normal trade relations rather than
foreign assistance.
Overall, the parties electoral agendas align in their perceptions of
Pakistans geopolitical environment and national priorities. They
differ, however, in their views on how best to realize the nations
objectives. Mainstream parties advocate a much more
cooperative approach based on more robust engagement with
both the region and the world.

How these elements will play out in the upcoming elections

remains unclear and will depend in large part on electoral
mathematics. Assuming the military continues its relatively
hands-off approach to foreign policy, the victory of the PML-N or
the PPP will likely lead to a much more peaceful approach to
foreign policy.
Recent polling data show an advantage for the PML-N. An average
of 36.5 percent of Pakistanis nationwide plan to vote for a PML-N
candidate, placing the party far ahead of Tehreek-e-Insaf (16
percent), the PPP (15.5 percent), and the Pakistan Muslim League
Quaid-e-Azam (3 percent).
These results should be viewed with caution, however. Because
Pakistans parliamentary system allocates seats by electoral unit
not on a national basisnationwide statistics may not tell the
full story of the election. Moreover, as no party gets a clear
majority at the national level or in the provinces (with the
exception of the PML-N in Punjab), it is all but inevitable that the
election will produce a coalition government and these dynamics
are difficult to predict through polling alone.
It also remains to be seen if Tehreek-e-Insaf will realize its
objective of upsetting the status quo and challenging the
mainstream parties. The party suffers from a significant gap
between its popularity and its perceived electability, suggesting
that its high visibility and strong media presence may not
translate to a victory at the polls.
Finally, it is impossible to rule out electoral manipulations of some
sort. Although the international community judged the 2008
elections to be free and fair, the Electoral Commission of Pakistan
later determined that about half of the entries in the voter rolls
were fraudulent.
At this point, however, most analysts remain optimistic that the
2013 elections will be transparent and legitimate. Coalition
politics is therefore likely to be the rule of the game, so a
consensus foreign policy is unlikely to emerge.


The militarys apparent laissez-faire attitude toward foreign policy,
the relatively similar policy approaches among the mainstream
parties, and the current electoral predictions all point to one
conclusion: the elections are unlikely to produce a sea change in
Pakistani foreign policy. The results will determine, however, the
degree of legitimacy and political maneuvering space the winning
party or coalition may enjoy, with significant implications for
foreign policy.

Should one of the mainstream political parties secure a decisive

victory, Pakistan will be more likely to pursue cooperative policies
at the regional and international level. Mainstream parties on both
ends of the ideological spectrum have demonstrated in the past a
greater tendency to try to resolve disputes peacefully, so it is
reasonable to expect that they will continue to behave this way
once in power, provided they receive a clear electoral mandate.
But if narrower electoral margins force the PPP or the PML-N to
align with a broader range of coalition partnersespecially
smaller and more radical partiesthose more marginal parties
may wield disproportionate influence in the policy arena and open
venues for subsequent manipulations.
As such, even free and fair elections are unlikely to produce an
entirely novel definition of Pakistans strategic environment and
threat perception, but they are very much part of an incremental
evolution toward a more peaceful Pakistani foreign policy.