Dynamics of 2016 US Presidential Election & Implications for Pakistan

Dynamics of 2016 US Presidential Election

The US presidential election is unique in the sense that the President is not directly elected by the people; it’s the Electoral College that elects him and it’s a distinctive compromise between the election by the US Congress and by popular vote. Currently, there are 538 Electors from all States and a vote of majority — 270 votes — is required to get elected. This system sanctions the controversial winner-takes-all phenomenon which, in effect, allows the possibility of a candidate actually losing the nationwide popular vote but getting elected as President by the Electoral College. For the 2016 election, a total of 1,870 candidates filed a Statement of Candidacy with the US Federal Election Commission. However, only the two leading candidates i.e. Republican Party nominee Donald J. Trump, and Democratic Party nominee Hillary R. Clinton, stand a chance of election to the Presidency.

In the unipolar world we live in, the US presidential election is a global event with far-reaching implications for countries around the world. These implications, more often than not, are far complex and intense for Pakistan for a host of reasons. The policy approach of the new US President toward Pakistan can potentially further complicate the already-strained Pak-US relations and bilateral cooperation. Although implications of 2016 presidential election for Pakistan spread to almost all areas, yet the three focus areas would be counterterrorism, nuclear issue and Afghanistan crisis. It is no surprise, therefore, that these are the areas where the two leading candidates and their parties have most often mentioned Pakistan during the campaign.

Between the two leading candidates, the Democrat Hillary Clinton has vast experience in echelons of power as First Lady, Secretary of State and as one of the two leading candidates for Democratic presidential nomination during the 2008 elections. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a political novice. His vast experience lies in real estate from where he has amassed amazing wealth. The 2016 campaign has been historic; firstly, in presenting Mr Trump, a political outsider as the Republican nominee for President and secondly, in making Mrs Clinton the first women ever to clinch a major party nomination.

It is interesting to see the contrasting campaign pitch of the two candidates. Donald Trump’s bid for presidency was initially laughed-off as an overambitious attempt by the celebrity billionaire. His political rise in eventually getting the republican endorsement baffled everyone and proved almost all analysts wrong. Trump’s rise clearly indicates a general “anti-political” and “anti-elitist” sentiment and the US electorates’ liking for non-establishment candidates. His slogan, in essence, has been ‘Globalization versus Americanism’. He has crafted his message around the notions of fear, exclusion and xenophobia; exploiting the insecurities of the white working middle class that is upset over its political and economic marginalization because of the growing influence of minorities, rising flow of immigrants and overseas flight of the US jobs. He has vowed to restore law and order, shun globalization, close borders and restrict immigration particularly from counties with history of terrorism links. He supports strong military action against ISIS but has taken a clear position against the US regime change approach. He professes that, if required, the US should opt out of agreements like North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He is also against financing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and has asked for financial payments to the organization by other member states.

In sharp contrast, Mrs Hillary Clinton is presenting herself as the candidate of hope, inclusion and togetherness. Her immense name recognition, vast experience and long history of public service make her a formidable candidate. The incumbent US President, Barack H. Obama, has endorsed Hillary’s nomination describing her as one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for the office of the President. In an effort to shed her image of being “elitist” and the “ultimate Washington insider”, Mrs Clinton is aggressively working with the minorities, particularly Latinos and Muslims. She has outlined her four big fights: building economy, strengthening families, fixing the dysfunctional political system, and keeping the country secure.

Historically, Pakistan rarely found a reference in either of the party platforms (manifestos) or during the presidential debates or in the statements made by the candidates. The situation, however, changed post-9/11 with Pakistan getting a lot of attention and even becoming a target of Republican and Democratic political crossfire during 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Although the references to Pakistan this time around are not as prominent as they were in the previous two campaigns, Pakistan has been referred to in both party platforms and in statements of the two candidates.

The Republican platform is generally in favour of Pakistan. It has acknowledged that a working relationship with Pakistan, though sometimes difficult, is necessary and to the benefit of both countries and has sought to strengthen the historic bilateral ties. This process, the platform notes in a veiled reference to Dr Shakil Afridi, cannot progress as long as any citizen of Pakistan can be punished for helping the War on Terror. It also notes that Pakistanis, Afghans and Americans have a common interest in ridding the region of the Taliban and pledges that the Republican President would work with all regional leaders to restore mutual trust, while insisting upon progress against corruption and the narcotic trade that fuels insurgency. Compared to the 2012 Republican platform, the rhetoric in that of 2016 scales back slightly, with a rather cautious mention of “expecting the Pakistani government to sever any connection between its security and intelligence forces and the insurgents.”

The platform stresses the need for securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Explaining the reference to “securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal” in the platform, it has been clarified by the Republican campaign advisors that the formulation indicated Republican administration’s strong support for Pakistan’s continued national efforts toward nuclear security. However, in an interview in September 2015, Mr Trump labelled Pakistan as “probably the most dangerous country” but also acknowledged that Pakistan has “some semblance of sanity at the moment”. In the same vein, he remarked that India “is the check to Pakistan”. More recently, he termed Pakistan “a vital problem and a vital country for us [USA] because they have nuclear weapons”. Trump’s statement on Shakil Afridi about getting him out of prison very quickly and the corresponding rebuttal by the Interior Minister of Pakistan also shows a knee-jerk, superficial understanding of Trump about Pakistan.

The pronouncement emanating from the 2016 Democratic Platform reflects a relatively harsh approach toward Pakistan. The mention of Pakistan notes: “We will help Pakistan stabilize its polity and build an effective relationship with the predominantly young population of this strategically located nuclear-armed country”. Mrs Clinton in one of her statements stated that she will continue to strengthen the “democratically-elected government in Afghanistan” in collaboration with the NATO-led coalition of partners; push for an Afghan-led peace process and “press both Afghanistan and Pakistan to deny terrorists sanctuary on either side of the border”.

Based on the two campaigns and parties’ corresponding platforms, it may be seen that the policy approach of the new President toward Pakistan particularly on counter-terrorism, Afghanistan and nuclear issues is not going to be much different from that of his/her opponent. However, the clean slate of Trump and historic baggage of Hillary would be manifested in their own different styles. Hillary with her experience as the Secretary of State would come back to a familiar set of issues with well-formed views, while Trump would bring a clean slate making him more impressionable than Clinton. However, given the broad anti-trade, anti-job outsourcing and anti-immigrant sentiment in the US and Trump’s isolationist rhetoric and his vitriol against Muslims, one can expect policy choices and initiatives that would close doors for any trade concessions for Pakistan, there will be aggressive use of protectionist measures and visa restrictions will be imposed on applicants from Muslim countries including Pakistan during a Trump Presidency.

Trump’s aggressive posturing against China may also place strains on US-China relations that may indirectly affect Pakistan. This may also have implications for the ongoing cooperation on Afghanistan under Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) which is the four-country dialogue on Afghanistan including Pakistan, China, US and Afghanistan. From the Pakistani community in US’ perspective, the Presidential campaign has been dividing. Trump’s verbal attack on Pakistani-origin US Army Captain Humayun Khan created a lot of resentment. His father Khizr Khan made a speech and issued various statements condemning Trump.

It is important to note that the India factor would also play out against Pakistan irrespective of a Democrat or Republican becoming the president. The Republican platform describes India as a geopolitical ally and a strategic trading partner that has earned a position of leadership because of the dynamism of its people and endurance of its democratic institutions. On the other hand, Democratic platform pledges to invest in a long-term strategic partnership with India considering it as “the world’s largest democracy, a nation of great diversity, and an important Pacific power”. The economic and strategic interests would further foster US-India relations and would adversely affect Pakistan. Indian influence may actually be a notch higher in case Mrs Clinton becomes president, given the Clintons’ long-held fascination with India and the presence of many Indian Americans on the Clinton team as democrats.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to predict the direction and magnitude of policy drift of the future US administration without knowing the new teams that will come at the helm of affairs. The role of transition administration, adequate briefs and starting on the right footing with the new administration would thus become important.

From Pakistan’s point of view, it is desirable that proactive measures are taken in the run-up to and after the US presidential election so as to create significant space in the new administration’s policy approach toward Pakistan. Country’s political leadership and the Foreign Office will have to take lead on this. It can start with efforts that the outgoing (Obama) administration leaves a balanced brief on Pakistan for its successor. Pakistani officials should engage with US staffers of the current administration to facilitate a favourable outcome in briefs. Similarly, aggressive outreach to the transition team of the incoming administration through engagement at both official and social levels would also pay dividends. It could be further facilitated by proactive messaging, briefing letters on issues of core interest and through dedicated seminars and workshops. A focused media strategy for the transition period could be envisaged with articles, pictorials and road shows to start on the right footing with the new administration.

The transition period between November and January will be critical. Many key Cabinet confirmation hearings would be held by the Senate in January. Pakistani officials should intensively work by reaching out to the nominees to build a positive narrative on Pakistan during these confirmation hearings.

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