Pakistan election as a marker of global progress

The Pakistan election on Saturday put a former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, back in power but that's not really the big story. Democracy itself advanced against Islamic terror and other woes facing Pakistan.

Former Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party Nawaz Sharif waves to his supporters in Lahore, Pakistan, after declaring victory in Saturday's election.

For too long, Pakistan has been a leading example of a failing state. It has challenged the very notion of progress for all humanity. Name a world woe – religious terror, military coups, endemic illiteracy, nuclear proliferation, power blackouts, aid dependency – and Pakistan has likely been home to it.

But after a remarkable election Saturday, a country of despair that has been nearly ungovernable may now be more one of hope.

The election winner was a former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which will command a new Parliament. But the hope doesn’t really lie in that particular result. Rather it lies in the dogs that didn’t bark.

Take the threat of the Taliban to shoo voters away by killing candidates and attacking polling stations. While about dozens of people were killed during the campaign, close to 60 percent of voters came out to cast ballots. That’s up from 44 percent five years ago. In addition, the youth vote swelled, Islam-based political parties did not fare well, and the number of female candidates was nearly double from the last election.

The Taliban concern that democracy poses a threat to a coming age of Islamic theocracy was only confirmed.

So now, in the global struggle to find a place for Islam in electoral politics, Pakistan can join a few other democratic Muslim states such as Turkey to advance the debate. And perhaps it can start to curb its sectarian violence – mainly Sunnis killing Shiites – that has left more than 40,000 dead since 2001.

The election also helped mark the fact that a civilian government was able to finish out its full five-year term for the first time. The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party lost big in the election, mainly for not improving the economy, but it at least showed historic survivability against any threat of a military coup. (Mr. Sharif himself was ousted in 1999.) Such a feat set the stage for an unprecedented transfer of power between civilian governments, a milestone in young democracies.

The military isn’t fully back in the barracks yet. It still wants to pick its commanders and control policy toward India, Afghanistan, and the Taliban. But it has learned it can’t govern well and, therefore, wisely remained neutral in the election.

All these successes were summed up well by Imran Khan, the former cricket star whose Movement for Justice party came in second: “The change that we have seen in Pakistan, nobody can reverse that.”

If Pakistanis are feeling buoyant, they’ll need it. Politics will rev up again soon to pick a new president and military chief. The Taliban need to be either defeated or won over to democracy. And Pakistan must still ask for foreign assistance to boost its sluggish economy.

Suppressing corruption and keeping the lights on for power-starved industries will be two of Sharif’s biggest challenges. And with America’s withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan next year, Pakistan needs to better define its regional role to enhance peace and prosperity. It should not remain ground zero for global terrorism.

After more than seven decades of independence and a long struggle over its identity, Pakistanis can now embrace the universal idea that progress – from the moral to the economic – is possible and that setbacks are merely lessons.

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