Is Pakistan's Army Ready To See Democracy Take Hold?

Pakistan holds elections this weekend. It's a milestone, as the balloting takes place as an elected civilian government finishes its entire five-year term. That's the first time that's ever happened. Steve Inskeep talks to Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council, and the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, one big reason people migrate to the United States is because of trouble at home. And in recent years, few nations have seen as much trouble as Pakistan. That country has suffered years of insurgencies, terror attacks, economic calamity. Yet it has reached a milestone: the country holds national elections this weekend. An elected civilian government has finished its entire five-year term, and will soon be replaced by another elected civilian government.

That's never happened in a country where the powerful military has repeatedly short-circuited democracy and intervened. Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council is an expert on Pakistan's military and other things Pakistan. His books include "Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within," and he's in our studios this morning. Welcome to the program.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Is Pakistan's army really ready to see democracy take hold, civilian politicians call the shots?

NAWAZ: All the indications are that they are ready to do that. There have been many opportunities for them to intervene in the last five years, and indeed, there were many people in different political parties in Pakistan that were urging them to act, but their hands have been pretty full.

INSKEEP: Civilians were saying: Lets' bring in the military. It's too disastrous. Civilians kept saying that, you're saying.

NAWAZ: Yes. But their hands have been pretty full fighting a major insurgency on the western border with Afghanistan. And I think, at this point, they've also turned away from the implacable hostility towards India to focus on the internal militancy and the insurgency.

INSKEEP: At the same time, we're told that there are a lot of powers the military has reserved to itself. They make a lot of the foreign policy. They have a lot of economic power. Is this really a democratic country at this point?

NAWAZ: Well, it's on the path to democracy. I think a lot of the initial euphoria about the last elections and the fact that the civilian government has completed its term is just that. I think the reality will really set in after this elections, when the real challenges that face Pakistan come to the forefront. These include economic challenges, which are enormous.

The country's going to run into a wall, and will have to come back to the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, for a new program.

INSKEEP: They need more money. They need loans.

NAWAZ: They much more money. They have an energy problem. Industry's operating at 50 percent. They need to create more jobs. They need to have an educational system that will prepare their people, and they also have a very young population. The median age of the population of 200 million people is 22. So 100 million people below the age of 22 is an enormous challenge and an opportunity, but governments will have to be prepared to provide the education and training for these people.

INSKEEP: Now, we don't know how the election's going to turn out, but the favorite, according to the polls, is a party lead by Nawaz Sharif, the guy who was the prime minister, removed in the last military coup. Is the army ready to work with this guy if he wins?

NAWAZ: I think the army will be ready to work with any government that provides good governance in Pakistan, because if that happens and the economy improves, then the pie expands for everyone, including the military. And as you said, the military has a substantial proportion of the economy under its own control. It has enterprises that it runs and owns and manages itself, plus its own needs for defense spending have to be funded from the economy.

After the withdrawal of the coalition from Afghanistan, the coalition support funds that were providing money for the military to fight the fight...

INSKEEP: U.S. money, yeah.

NAWAZ: ...in the western border region is going to disappear. So there are huge challenges, and this will mean a new way of looking at Pakistan's role in the neighborhood, as well as the military's role within Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, we heard from our correspondent Julie McCarthy earlier this week on this program about the violence attending this election. This should be an optimistic moment. It's terrifying, politicians being killed. Is this going to be a free and fair election?

NAWAZ: Well, it's going to be a free and fair election to the extent that the Taliban and the other militants allow it to happen. Traditionally, you had violence of one party on the other, or people storming polling stations and then stuffing the ballot boxes. Well, the military now has 73,000 persons deployed throughout the country, particularly at the sensitive polling stations, to prevent that kind of violence. But it's almost impossible to prevent the kind of targeted violence against candidates, and particularly (unintelligible) in Baluchistan.

INSKEEP: OK. Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council, thanks for coming in.

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INSKEEP: And you heard him right here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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