How Will Elections Impact Pakistan’s Foreign Policy

As long-term national interests and structural factors generally determine foreign policy, such policies often persist regardless of who holds political power.

Decision-making on Pakistan’s 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 Pakistan’s foreign policy. The elections are unlikely to produce a wholesale change in Islamabad’s thinking, but might enable a shift in conduct of 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 party’s 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 a disproportionate role in policymaking.

Depending on the results, Pakistan’s 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 Pakistan’s relations with its neighborhood and help define a new South Asia.

 Foreign policy rarely decides elections anywhere in the world. Pakistan is no different. The country’s 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.
 The Military’s Role

The Pakistani military, often operating behind the scenes, is known to make and unmake majorities and governments to maintain its primacy and impose its will. Most analysts see the army as the real decision-maker in matters of foreign policy and defense.

Historically, the military has undoubtedly imposed major political constraints on the definition and implementation of Pakistan’s foreign policy. But it still bears noting that some high-ranking civil servants and major political parties have traditionally shared the military’s views on foreign policy. Nonetheless, in recent months the civilian government has enjoyed slightly more political space on foreign policy. However, a series of serious incidents 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 them.

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 Islamabad’s international isolation. But things changed most significantly after US forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border checkpoint near Salala. Islamabad’s retaliatory closure of overland supply routes for US forces in Afghanistan certainly increased NATO’s costs.

Public Opinion

Even with greater space for civilian leaders to operate, the impact of public opinion on foreign policy is surprisingly absent from most debates on Pakistan’s external affairs. William B. Milam and Matthew J. Nelson argue that populism is a political constant in Pakistan’s 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. Pakistan’s elites’ both 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.

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 issues as 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. There is widespread sympathy for the cause, 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. This allowed Pervez Musharraf to take some relatively bold initiatives and to demonstrate 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 policies’ be they confrontational or cooperative’ as they see fit.

Political Parties

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 dispute’ but diverge significantly in their policy prescriptions.

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 Pakistan’s relationship with China, they divide sharply on relations with the United States. The religious political parties of Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami and their allies, including Tehreek-e-Insaf, strongly criticize the current U.S.-Pakistani relationship. But the mainstream parties’ both the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League’ are more accepting of Pakistan’s ties with Washington. 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.

Public views on foreign policy have also evolved considerably over the past ten years, varying in both substance and intensity.
 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 and political parties, takes an even more categorical stance, favoring a complete end to US-Pakistan relations.

Tehreek-e-Insaf is surfing the same wave of anti-Americanism. Its chief Imran Khan blames successive Pakistani governments for compromising Pakistani honour and security by working with the United States. In the same spirit, Tehreek-e-Insaf condemns US drone strikes.

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.

When it comes to Afghanistan, both sets of parties tend to condemn US policies toward Kabul and denounce the consequences for Pakistan. The parties vary, however, in their specific approaches to Afghanistan. As noted above, Tehreek-e-Insaf sees no Taliban threat to Pakistan, while the PPP argues for ‘Pakistan’s 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 Pakistan’s eastern neighbour, but there are clear divides on how best to deal with the issue and manage the relationship.

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-favoured-nation status granted to India be revoked.

Tehreek-e-Insaf, however, takes an original position designed to satisfy its relatively broad electoral base. 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 Pakistan’s geopolitical environment and national priorities.

Election Prospects

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 surveys show an advantage for the PML-N. An average of 36.5 per cent of Pakistanis plan to vote for a PML-N candidate, which puts the party far ahead of Tehreek-e-Insaf and others.

These results should be viewed with caution, however. Because Pakistan’s parliamentary system allocates seats by electoral unit’ not on a national basis’ nationwide 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, it is all but inevitable that the election will produce a coalition government.

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.

What Can the Elections Achieve?

The military’s 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.

But if narrower electoral margins force the PPP or the PML-N to align with a broader range of coalition partners’ especially smaller and more radical parties’ those 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 Pakistan’s strategic environment and threat perception, but they are very much part of an incremental evolution toward a more peaceful Pakistani foreign policy.

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