Pakistan is beset by a torrent of maladies. Its government is bankrupt. Its economy is mired in stagflation as the population booms. Terrorists strike all corners of the country. Civil conflict in its largest city, Karachi, has evolved from feuds between ethnic political parties into a Taliban war against them all, exacerbated by ever-powerful criminal mafias. The cancer of extremism is spreading deeper and the death toll mounts.
But there is opportunity for change. Pakistan's political leaders have taken major steps toward institutionalizing civilian, democratic rule. In March, for the first time in Pakistan's history, a democratically elected National Assembly completed its term. The caretaker prime minister was chosen in a manner mandated by a constitutional amendment passed last year with near-unanimity in parliament.
Indeed, since 2010, Pakistan's parliament has passed three landmark constitutional amendments that resolve long-standing conflicts, including power sharing between the federal and provincial governments and bipartisan methods to make appointments to the superior courts and election commission. Political reforms that had been delayed for decades were passed in the last few years amid a budding political culture of consensus and compromise.
After general elections in May, if terrorists do not get in the way, Pakistan will witness another first: the transition of power from one democratically elected government to another. Attempts at such a feat failed in the 1990s during Pakistan's previous experiment with democracy. Nawaz Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto, heads of the two largest parties, fought mercilessly, leveling corruption charges at each other, indirectly strengthening the military's hand.
Each was prime minister twice during the 1990s — dubbed Pakistan's "lost decade" — but neither served a full term. In the next decade, both politicians went into exile in London while Gen. Pervez Musharraf ruled, buttressed by support from much of Pakistan and the international community. Then Bhutto and Sharif decided to bury the hatchet and work for deep democratic reforms. In 2006, they signed a "charter of democracy" that provided a blueprint for civilian, democratic rule and is the source of most of Pakistan's recent reforms.
Change is taking place. The army has taken a back seat, at least for now. It would be a mistake to describe the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, as a politician. His tenure has been marked by self-restraint and, come May, two free and fair elections. Two new power brokers, the Supreme Court and the private media, though activist and in need of restraint, act as bulwarks against military intervention.
Pakistani politics is drama-laden, with one crisis after another. But over the last five years, red lines have been set. Pakistanis yearn for change, and most see the electoral process as the way to achieve it.
But the Pakistani public's appetite, or some would say tolerance, for democracy could wane if the next government fails to address the country's deep structural problems. Whoever is in power in Islamabad after the May elections will have to push forward major reforms: getting the wealthy (including most members of parliament) and the middle class to pay income taxes; restructuring state-owned enterprises that serve as vehicles for political patronage and bleed increasingly scarce government cash; and developing a comprehensive counter-terrorism and counter-extremism strategy.
The latter challenge, in particular, requires a moral courage that has been lacking from some Pakistani politicians on the right, most of whom favor talks with Taliban militants. Their goal of a Pakistan that does not engage in war against its own people is admirable. But their failure to see that there are militants who seek no peace is suicidal.
Washington, for its part, must do no harm. But doing no harm and doing nothing are not the same thing. The U.S. should help Pakistan where it matters: building parliament's professional research and support capacity, boosting income tax collection, combating corruption and terrorism, and finding cheap sources of energy and markets for Pakistani exports.
Finally, Washington cannot sanction military rule in Pakistan. Democracy and good governance are not mutually exclusive in Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan cannot continue to exist without both.
Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.