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Pakistan Vote Comes in Shadow of Violence, Military

A Benazir Bhutto PPP party campaign billboard is displayed above a busy bazaar in the old city in Peshawar, Pakistan. Tensions are high following a suicide bombing in which 47 people were killed at PPP campaign rally in the northwestern tribal town of Parachinar, bordering Afghanistan.
Paula Bronstein
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Getty Images
A Benazir Bhutto PPP party campaign billboard is displayed above a busy bazaar in the old city in Peshawar, Pakistan. Tensions are high following a suicide bombing in which 47 people were killed at PPP campaign rally in the northwestern tribal town of Parachinar, bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistanis vote in a parliamentary election Monday, ending a campaign that has been overshadowed by violence. The most obvious sign of that violence was the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in December. But only Saturday, another suicide bombing killed dozens of Bhutto's party supporters.

The elections are supposed to mark the final step in Pakistan's transition from military to civilian rule. But Pakistan's army has ruled the country for half of its 60-year history. And few people there believe the military can keep away from politics.

In late November, when President Pervez Musharraf resigned as military chief, it was supposed to mark a new era for Pakistan. Having ruled for eight years, Musharraf was seen as the latest in a long line of military dictators. And by the time Musharraf relinquished his post as the country's top general, there was a deep, widespread anger towards him.

And that anger extended to the military, according to Roedad Khan, a former top bureaucrat who has worked under six Pakistani leaders. Khan says people in Pakistan are fed up with military rule.

"There is only one core issue between the people of Pakistan today," Khan said. "And that is how to get rid of army rule. Because until you do that, Pakistan is not going to progress."

Khan says that because Pakistan's political process has been interrupted so many times, a stable democracy has been unable to evolve. And as a result, he says, the military is pervasive in the country's politics.

"Even when they're not directly in power, they control the politics of Pakistan," Khan says, "and some of the crucial decisions, crucial issues are really determined by the army."

Often, those crucial issues include foreign policy. Pakistan's relationships with India, Afghanistan, and the United States are determined by its army. And the decision to become a nuclear-armed state was made by Pakistan's military.

Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy, a security analyst, says that even the economy is controlled by the army.

"The Pakistan army makes everything from sugar and cement down to corned flakes and bottled water," Hoodbhoy said. "So, as a consequence of this, the economy has also been subverted. And so the normal competition you would expect in an economy is not there, because the army has so big a share of the pie."

Many people feel the army now may be moving away from that kind of dominance, under Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the man who replaced Musharraf as the army's chief of staff.

Over the past month, Kiyani has made some key — and bold — steps.

First, he declared that no military officials could have any dealings with a politician unless it is cleared through him first — a provision that includes President Musharraf.

Then Kiyani called back scores of military officers from plum civilian positions that were handed out as perks by Musharraf, powerful positions in ministries such as transportation, communication and the water and power authority.

Nasim Zehra, a security analyst, says Gen. Kiyani appears aware that he needs to roll back some of the military's power.

"I think [it's] the mother of necessity in this case," Zehra said, "because it's a question of the institution's reputation, institution's well-being, and the country's well-being at stake."

But Kiyani must move slowly in order to prevent any backlash. Many generals have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Professor Hoodbhoy thinks Kiyani may make some positive changes in the short term — but he says the army has no intention of going back to the barracks permanently.

"The army just wants to be away from the public eye at the moment," Hoodbhoy said, "because it's being held responsible for all the ills of the country.

"But they have no intention of surrendering power; they don't believe that the people of Pakistan are capable of running the country. They think that they are the rightful owners of this country. And that kind of attitude will take a long time to change."

Pakistan's national elections may bring a new civilian government into power. But there is little doubt that the country's army will still be hovering on the horizon.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.