Le Pakistan après le meurtre de Benazir Bhutto : une piste à suivre pour aller de l’avant
Le Pakistan après le meurtre de Benazir Bhutto : une piste à suivre pour aller de l’avant
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Keeping Turmoil at Bay in Pakistan’s Polarised Polity
Keeping Turmoil at Bay in Pakistan’s Polarised Polity
Briefing 74 / Asia

Le Pakistan après le meurtre de Benazir Bhutto : une piste à suivre pour aller de l’avant

Synthèse

Déjà fortement marqué par huit ans de régime militaire, le fragile système politique du Pakistan a essuyé un terrible revers le 27 décembre 2007 lorsque l’ancien Premier ministre Benazir Bhutto a été assassinée. Ce meurtre, commis à seulement quelques jours d’élections parlementaires prévues pour le 8 janvier 2008 et désormais reportées au 18 février prochain, a mis fin aux efforts américains de négocier un accord de partage des pouvoirs avec le président Pervez Musharraf, accord jugé irréaliste par la dirigeante du Parti du peuple pakistanais (PPP) de centre-gauche. La popularité dont jouissait Mme Bhutto et la conviction que Musharraf et ses alliés sont responsables de l’assassinat de celle-ci ont, directement ou non, provoqué des manifestations violentes à travers le pays.

Pour rétablir la stabilité au Pakistan et pour que le pays puisse contribuer aux efforts internationaux de lutte contre la terreur, il faut à présent opérer une transition rapide afin de légitimer un gouvernement civil. Cela implique le départ de Musharraf, dont les efforts continus pour se maintenir au pouvoir à tout prix sont incompatibles avec la réconciliation nationale ; la formation d’un gouvernement intérimaire de consensus et d’une Commission électorale neutre ; et le report rapide des élections pour permettre de créer les conditions nécessaires – notamment la restauration d’une justice indépendante – pour que celles-ci se déroulent de façon juste et libre.

Le décès de Benazir Bhutto a redessiné de façon encore plus nette l’écart qui sépare le régime de Musharraf, soutenu par l’armée, et la majorité pakistanaise modérée, qui n’exigera à présent certainement rien moins qu’une véritable démocratie parlementaire. Au Pakistan, nombreux sont ceux qui craignent que la survie même de la fédération dépende de l’issue de cette lutte.

Faisant mentir le slogan qu’il a pourtant répété à maintes reprises, “le Pakistan d’abord”, Musharraf placé la survie du régime et son propre destin politique au premier plan, comme il l’avait déjà fait en novembre. Il avait alors imposé la loi martiale, suspendu la constitution, emprisonné des milliers d’avocats et de politiciens, et mis à pied un certain nombre de juges dans le seul objectif d’empêcher la Cour suprême de mettre en cause la légitimité de sa réélection en tant que président par un Collège électoral sous influence et en fin de mandat.

Musharraf a renoncé à son titre de Chef des Armées le 28 novembre sous la pression des États-Unis mais la légitimité de sa réélection reste contestée. Il a officiellement déclaré la suspension de la loi martiale le 15 décembre dernier, mettant ainsi fin à l’état d’urgence et relançant l’application de la constitution. Toutefois, non seulement il n’a pas réintégré les juges qui avaient été congédiés ni annulé les décrets répressifs qu’il avait adoptés mais il a également, de façon unilatérale et sans aucun fondement juridique, proclamé des amendements à la constitution destinés à priver les tribunaux et le parlement des prérogatives constitutionnelles qui leur permettraient de contester ces changements.

Le PPP de Bhutto et la Ligue musulmane de centre-droit de l’ancien Premier ministre Nawaz Sharif (Ligue musulmane du Pakistan-Nawaz) avaient accepté avec réticence de participer aux élections prévues pour le 8 janvier, motivés surtout par le désir de révéler l’intention de Musharraf d’en falsifier les résultats. Tribunaux et gouvernements intérimaires partiaux, Commission électorale sous influence, médias bâillonnés, restrictions de l’activité des partis politiques, et certains agissements des agences de sécurité sont autant d’atteintes aux conditions qui auraient assuré des élections justes et libres.

Les acteurs internationaux qui soutiennent le régime, en particulier les États-Unis, continuent d’envoyer des signes montrant leur volonté de maintenir Musharraf à la présidence parce qu’ils croient que lui et l’Armée (son seul appui) sont les seuls garants de la stabilité d’un pays d’une importance cruciale dans la région. Mais après le meurtre de Benazir Bhutto et maintenant que la colère populaire s’exprime pleinement, la tenue d’élections qui ne seraient pas considérées comme libres et justes aurait des conséquences désastreuses. La personne de Musharraf est devenue si impopulaire que son maintien au pouvoir garantit des troubles internes croissants. En continuant à le soutenir, les gouvernements occidentaux pourraient bien non seulement perdre la bataille pour gagner le soutien des Pakistanais mais ils pourraient bien également se trouver face à la perspective cauchemardesque d’un pays qui abrite une population de 165 millions de personnes, en majorité musulmane, doté de l’arme nucléaire et qui glisse dans un conflit interne violent auquel seules les forces extrémistes auraient à gagner.

Le parti de Bhutto survivra à la disparition de celle-ci et, si ses successeurs agissent avec sagesse, il demeurera une force de modération et de stabilité au Pakistan. Le parti de Sharif s’est engagé avec le PPP pour restaurer la démocratie, la paix et la stabilité dans le pays. Les États-Unis et leurs alliés occidentaux doivent reconnaître que Musharraf non seulement n’est pas indispensable au pays mais qu’il représente désormais un danger grave pour la stabilité de celui-ci. Au lieu d’appuyer un dirigeant autoritaire et fortement impopulaire considéré comme complice du décès du personnage politique le plus apprécié au Pakistan, ils devraient plutôt soutenir le peuple pakistanais et le fonctionnement d’institutions démocratiques. Il est temps que l’Occident admette que seul un gouvernement élu en toute légitimité et dirigé par l’un des partis modérés du Pakistan disposerait de l’autorité et de l’appui populaire nécessaires pour ramener le pays vers ses attaches démocratiques modérées.

En résumé, les événements politiques susceptibles de survenir au cours des deux prochains mois au profit du Pakistan et pour lesquels la communauté internationale devrait apporter un appui solide et constant, en particulier les acteurs qui sont le plus à même de les influencer comme les États-Unis, sont :

  • la démission de Musharraf, dont les fonctions présidentielles seraient alors exercées temporairement en vertu de la constitution par le président du Sénat, Mohammadmian Soomro,, qui désignerait des gouvernements intérimaires neutres aux niveaux national et provincial avec le consensus des principaux partis politiques dans les quatre unités qui composent la fédération ;
     
  • le report et l’annonce d’une nouvelle date pour la tenue des élections. La Commission électorale a annoncé le 2 janvier un report pour le 18 février. La date est raisonnable en elle-même mais la Commission n’a fait aucun commentaire à propos des autres changements cruciaux mentionnés dans le présent briefing et qui sont nécessaires à la restauration de la démocratie au Pakistan ;
     
  • la pleine restauration de la constitution, d’une justice indépendante et de garanties contre les arrestations et la détention arbitraires  et autres libertés fondamentales garanties par la constitution comme la liberté de paroles, d’association et de réunion ;
     
  • la formation d’une nouvelle Commission électorale du Pakistan, avec le consensus de l’ensemble des principaux partis politiques ; et
     
  • le transfert du pouvoir et de l’autorité légitime à un pouvoir civil.

Islamabad/Bruxelles, 2 janvier 2008

I. Overview

Gravely damaged by eight years of military rule, Pakistan’s fragile political system received a major blow on 27 December 2007, when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Her murder, days before the parliamentary elections scheduled for 8 January 2008 and now postponed to 18 February, put an end to a U.S. effort to broker a power-sharing deal with President Pervez Musharraf which the centre-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader had already recognised was unrealistic. Her popularity and the belief Musharraf and his allies were responsible, directly or indirectly, have led to violent countrywide protests.

Stability in Pakistan and its contribution to wider anti-terror efforts now require rapid transition to legitimate civilian government. This must involve the departure of Musharraf, whose continued efforts to retain power at all costs are incompatible with national reconciliation; an interim consensus caretaker government and a neutral Election Commission; and brief postponement of the elections to allow conditions to be created – including the restoration of judicial independence – in which they can be conducted freely and fairly. 

Bhutto’s death has drawn the battle lines even more clearly between Musharraf’s military-backed regime and Pakistan’s moderate majority, which is now unlikely to settle for anything less than genuine parliamentary democracy. Many in Pakistan fear that the federation’s very survival could depend on the outcome of this struggle.

Belying his reiterated slogan of “Pakistan first”, Musharraf is placing regime survival and his personal political fortune first, just as he did in November. That month he imposed martial law, suspended the constitution, imprisoned thousands of lawyers and politicians and sacked the judiciary with the sole objective of preventing the Supreme Court from challenging the legitimacy of his re-election as president by a lame-duck and stacked Electoral College. 

Musharraf gave up his position of Army Chief on 28 November under U.S. pressure, but the legitimacy of his presidential election remains contested. He withdrew martial law formally on 15 December, ending the emergency and reviving the constitution. At the same time, however, he not only did not restore the dismissed judges or void the repressive decrees he had issued but also unilaterally and without any legal basis proclaimed amendments to the constitution purporting to deny the courts and the parliament their constitutional prerogatives to challenge his changes.

Bhutto’s PPP and the centre-right Muslim League (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, PML-N) of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had reluctantly agreed to participate in the 8 January elections, motivated primarily by the desire to expose Musharraf’s intention to rig the vote. Stacked courts, partial caretaker governments, a subservient Election Commission, the gagging of the media, curbs on political party mobilisation and association and the actions of the security agencies all undermined the essential conditions for free and fair elections.

The regime’s international backers, particularly the U.S., continue to give signs of wanting to retain Musharraf in the presidency in the belief that he and the military (his sole support base) are the only guarantors of stability in a crucial country. But after Bhutto’s murder, and with the extent of popular anger now evident, elections that are not seen as free and fair would have disastrous consequences. The person of Musharraf has become so unpopular that his continuation in a position of power guarantees increasing domestic turmoil. By continuing to back him, Western governments might not just lose the battle for Pakistani hearts and minds, but could also be faced with the nightmare prospect of a nuclear-armed, Muslim-majority country of 165 million descending into violent internal conflict from which only extremist forces would stand to gain.

Bhutto’s party will survive her demise, and will, should her successors act wisely, remain a force for moderation and stability in Pakistan. Sharif’s party has vowed to work with the PPP to restore democracy, peace and stability in the country. The U.S. and its Western allies must recognise that Musharraf is not only not indispensable, but he is now a serious liability. Instead of backing a deeply unpopular authoritarian ruler who is seen as complicit in the death of Pakistan’s most popular politician, they must instead support democratic institutions and the people of Pakistan. It is time that the West acknowledges that only a legitimate elected government, led by one of the moderate parties, would have the authority and the popular backing to return Pakistan to its moderate democratic moorings.

In summary, the policy outcomes that need to happen over the next two months, and which should be strongly and consistently supported by the international community, and particularly those like the U.S. most capable of influencing them, are:

  • Musharraf’s resignation, with Senate Chairman Mohammadmian Soomro taking over under the constitution as acting president and appointing neutral caretaker governments at the national and provincial levels with the consensus of the major political parties in all four federal units;
     
  • postponement of the polls, accompanied with the announcement of an early new election date. The Election Commission announced on 2 January a postponement until 18 February. This is reasonable in and of itself but it said nothing about the other crucial changes discussed in this Briefing and which are needed if this step is to contribute to restoration of democracy in Pakistan;
     
  • full restoration of the constitution, including an independent judiciary and constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and association and safeguards against illegal arrest and detention;
     
  • reconstitution of the Election Commission of Pakistan, with the consensus of all major political parties; and
     
  • the transfer of power and legitimate authority to elected civilian hands.

Islamabad/Brussels, 2 January 2008

Commentary / Asia

Keeping Turmoil at Bay in Pakistan’s Polarised Polity

Kicked out of office, former Prime Minister Imran Khan keeps denying his successor’s legitimacy. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022 – Spring Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to help Pakistan's new government ward off violence, expand the social safety net and promote electoral reforms.

Though Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted through a democratic, constitutional process, he has denied the new government’s legitimacy, a tack that could lead to violence. The strategy Khan has relied on since parliament passed a no-confidence vote against him on 10 April has two goals: to undermine the coalition government led by Shehbaz Sharif and to galvanise popular support for new polls. Khan accuses his political opponents, now heading a new government, of conspiring with the U.S. to remove him, and is calling on his supporters to reject “foreign-imposed regime change”. He also bears grudges against the Supreme Court for upholding the constitutionality of the no-trust vote and against the country’s powerful military for refusing to back him in the standoff. Khan’s only hope for a political comeback seems to lie in building mass opposition to Sharif’s government and forcing it to hold general elections well ahead of the scheduled 2023 date. He assumes that the military high command would back new polls, much as his relations with the top brass have soured, in order to keep political turmoil at bay. Yet his own approach – his refusal to accept the authority of the apex election body, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) – dents the prospect of a peaceful post-election transfer of power.

The Sharif government has taken a resolutely different direction from that of its predecessor. It is seeking to re-engage with key diplomatic and trading partners, particularly the European Union and the U.S. In an effort to stem the economic downturn, worsened by the war in Ukraine, it has appealed to international financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, for support. The coalition government has also taken tentative steps to improve democratic governance, including by removing some curbs on media freedom. Additionally, it has pledged to enact legislation reforming the electoral process prior to holding new polls.

The political, economic and diplomatic challenges confronting the new government are compounded by deteriorating security. Khan’s anti-Western rhetoric risks emboldening Islamist militant and jihadist forces in the country. Militant violence is already surging, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province’s tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, straining relations between Islamabad and Kabul’s Taliban-led authorities. Political polarisation could worsen and erupt into violence, weakening parliamentary institutions, while sapping the state’s capacity to counter security threats.

To help lower these risks, the EU and its member states should:

  • Use the structured dialogues that are part of the EU-Pakistan cooperation framework to build a constructive working relationship with the new government on political, security and foreign policy issues of mutual concern, and pursue plans to hold the first official EU-Pakistan Security Dialogue. Repairing ties with Islamabad would help undo damage done by Khan’s conspiracy narrative.
     
  • Hold talks with the new government on the renewal of Pakistan’s status under the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+), which provides substantial trade benefits to Islamabad and is set to expire at the end of 2022, including by moving forward with the European External Action Service’s GSP+ mission that was put on hold amid the Pakistani political crisis.
     
  • Assist Sharif’s government in expanding the social safety net, with special attention to women and girls, and in rebuilding militancy-hit regions, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s tribal belt abutting Afghanistan, thus thwarting militants looking to take advantage of local alienation.
     
  • Promote electoral reforms to stop the forthcoming elections from sparking violence and prepare to send an election observation mission, as past missions have helped identify problems in the electoral process.
     

The Costs of Populist Rhetoric

Since his dismissal, Khan has relied on an anti-Western narrative to attack his opponents and incite his supporters. Addressing large rallies in Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore and other cities countrywide, and using social media to spread his message to his youthful supporters, Khan has alleged that the U.S., angered by his “independent foreign policy”, conspired to remove his government. He cites as evidence a diplomatic cable, which he calls a “threat letter”, sent by Pakistan’s then-envoy to Washington after a 7 March meeting with a top State Department official. Khan claims that the U.S. was antagonised by his refusal to cancel a trip to Moscow on 24 February, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, and by his opposition to the U.S. war in Afghanistan – he says he rejected Washington’s demands for military bases in Pakistan for operations next door.

Khan’s allegations are targeted at political opponents but also the judiciary and army. He has accused the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples Party, who now spearhead the coalition government, of conniving with the U.S. to remove his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. Khan turned to these allegations when the opposition, supported by most of his coalition partners, moved to vote no confidence in his leadership. The charges formed the bedrock of the deputy parliament speaker’s case for dismissing the motion and President Arif Alvi’s case when on 3 April he dissolved the National Assembly. Had the dissolution stood, it would have required new polls within 90 days. But on 7 April, the Supreme Court reversed both actions as unconstitutional and the no-confidence motion went ahead, resulting in Khan’s removal on 10 April and Sharif’s election as prime minister the next day. Khan’s supporters subsequently took to social media to lambast the Court, but also Pakistan’s military leaders, who stayed neutral during the showdown.

Khan accused the new government’s entire top leadership of corruption, based on charges filed against them by his government.

Following his ouster, Khan opted to take to the streets, hoping to whip up popular sentiment against the Sharif government, as well as the PTI dissidents who had chosen to back it. Khan accused the new government’s entire top leadership of corruption, based on charges filed against them by his government. He insisted that they had bought the loyalty of those PTI lawmakers, both federal and provincial, who have lined up behind them. Most PTI members of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, resigned en masse upon Khan’s instructions. Khan has since asked the Supreme Court to bar those who refused to quit, and other PTI dissidents in the Punjab assembly, from legislative office for life, and many of them have been forced into hiding by PTI supporters’ threats of violence. The Court has passed over this request, but on 17 May, it did rule that votes of party defectors on no-confidence motions, or elections for prime minister or chief minister (the top office in Pakistan’s provinces), cannot be counted. That decision has direct implications for Punjab, the country’s most populous and politically weighty province, where provincial lawmakers, including some two dozen PTI dissidents, chose Sharif’s son Hamza over Khan’s nominee as chief minister in mid-April.

In this atmosphere of heightened polarisation, Khan’s call on his supporters to march on Islamabad and to remain there until his demand for new elections is met could lead to deadly violence. Accepting Khan’s conspiracy narrative at face value, the PTI base is infuriated by their leader’s ouster. With such a ready audience, Khan’s inflammatory rhetoric aimed at besieging the federal capital could fuel bloodshed, paralyse the government and force a military intervention that would lead to new polls. Indeed, some analysts believe that may be Khan’s intent. The PTI used similar tactics in 2014, when its sit-in against Nawaz Sharif’s government saw party activists attack parliament and other government buildings, bringing the administration to a standstill. Addressing a rally in late April, Khan called on the army to endorse holding “early elections”. The military, however, took no sides in the lead-up to the prime minister’s ouster and seems disinclined to change its stance in the aftermath. Khan’s attempts while prime minister to intrude on the military’s jealously guarded institutional autonomy are likely one reason for the high command’s lack of support. His meddling included a reported attempt to nominate his own man as army chief to replace the incumbent, who is set to retire in November. Army officials, meanwhile, have long been concerned about the adverse implications of the former prime minister’s anti-Western conspiracy narrative and his criticism of the EU and U.S., both key diplomatic and trading partners.

Even before Khan was ousted, army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa tacitly rebuked his anti-West and pro-Russia rhetoric, saying Pakistan has “very cordial historic relations with both camps”. Since Khan left office, however, the military has become more explicit in repudiating his specific claims, one of which is that the high command endorsed his allegations of U.S. skulduggery at a 31 March meeting of the National Security Council. In mid-April, the military spokesman reminded journalists that the Council had issued a statement following the 31 March meeting; they could read it themselves to see that it contained no mention of a U.S. “conspiracy”. As for what Khan calls the “threat letter”, the spokesman explained that the State Department official had used undiplomatic language in the 7 March meeting with the Pakistani envoy, amounting to “interference” in Pakistan’s internal affairs. The envoy’s cable – the so-called letter – had merely informed the foreign ministry of this interaction. Islamabad then sent a demarche to Washington, but that is where the matter stopped. The spokesman further rejected Khan’s claim that the U.S. asked Pakistan to provide bases on its territory. He concluded by emphasising that the high command had stayed neutral in the political standoff in accordance with the military’s constitutional role. On 22 April, in another statement, the Council expressly denied the existence of a U.S. plot to oust Khan. Nonetheless, the ex-prime minister persists in saying the army backs his claims.

Khan’s relationship with the military could be damaged beyond repair if he opts to violently oppose the Sharif government at a time when militant attacks are surging. Attacks by Pakistani Taliban militants, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s merged tribal districts at the border with Afghanistan, have escalated in recent weeks, killing or injuring scores of soldiers. The spike in cross-border attacks and military casualties is straining Pakistan’s ties with its Afghan Taliban allies. For the first time since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, Pakistani warplanes have reportedly attacked Pakistani Taliban targets in Afghan territory. At a time when the Pakistani Taliban are making a comeback, taking advantage of Afghan havens, the military high command is likely particularly concerned about Khan’s anti-Western rhetoric. His allegation that the Sharif government is “foreign-imposed” – in other words, forced upon an Islamic country by meddling Westerners – could give the Pakistani Taliban yet another rallying cry with which to raise funds, find new recruits and attack state institutions.

Opportunities and Constraints

The coalition government faces major economic challenges. GDP growth is low; the current account deficit is unsustainable; foreign exchange reserves are fast depleting; and soaring inflation rates, now driven up further by the Ukraine war and the sanctions on Russia, have raised fuel and food prices. Mending relations with the West, particularly the EU and U.S., its major trading partners, is therefore a top policy priority. Sharif and his cabinet ministers recognise that the EU, through the GSP+ and the trade benefits it provides, is a major source of much-needed assistance for Pakistan’s faltering economy, and hence they have vowed to strengthen diplomatic and trade relations with the bloc. Pakistan also needs U.S. support as it approaches the IMF and the World Bank for financial assistance, a task that the government should undertake with some urgency if it is to prevent an economic meltdown. Successful negotiations with the IMF for resumption of a multibillion-dollar loan program will require withdrawing Khan’s economically unviable populist measures, such as high subsidies for fuel and power. The government has been slow to act as prices rise and its indecision is further weakening the country’s floundering economy.

With poverty levels rising and food price inflation at an all-time high, if the government fails to provide social safety nets for the poorest and most vulnerable households, public anger could play into the opposition’s hands. The Sharif government has made some promising commitments. For instance, it has committed to continued support for the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), which provides targeted assistance in the form of cash transfers to women who head households falling below the poverty line. Islamabad should consider using savings made by discontinuing Khan’s financial awards to loyalist parliamentarians and tax amnesty schemes to increase both the amount of BISP cash transfers and the number of grantees.

The coalition government has also moved to reverse steps taken under Khan to reduce media freedom and civil space more generally. Intolerance of criticism was a hallmark of the PTI government, with female journalists in particular bearing the brunt of party activists’ social media attacks. It has yet to become clear, however, if the Sharif government’s commitment to protect freedom of expression and association will translate into durable action.

The Sharif government could be forced to accept the military’s policy preferences.

Like its predecessor, the Sharif government could be forced to accept the military’s policy preferences. This tendency is already evident in a crackdown on criticism of the military on social media websites. The military’s red lines have even determined the new cabinet’s formation. After agreeing to include in his cabinet Mohsin Dawar, the National Assembly member from North Waziristan, the founder of the civil society-led Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and an outspoken military critic, Sharif now seems to be backtracking. Still, Dawar accompanied the prime minister when he visited Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s North Waziristan district less than a fortnight after taking office. During the visit, Sharif pledged to improve civic facilities such as schools and health clinics. Such civic assistance should be targeted at women and girls, whose access to education, health care and other basic services has severely declined due to both militancy and military operations in this and other conflict-hit zones.

With general elections due no later than October 2023, time constraints will limit the coalition government’s capacity to carry out governance and economic reforms. It should therefore focus on the most pressing. Clarity on economic policies, including through successful negotiations with the IMF, could help address economic uncertainty, but given the tight timeline electoral reform requires a particularly urgent response. Rejecting Khan’s calls for elections before such reforms are enacted, the coalition partners intend to work in parliament to identify gaps and flaws in electoral laws and processes.

Khan’s rejection of the ECP’s neutrality and refusal to cooperate with parliament might make it difficult to obtain political ownership of the electoral reform process. The parliamentary coalition, composed of nine political parties with widely ranging ideological and regional constituencies, is fairly representative of public opinion. It should, however, also consult civil society, including women’s and rights groups, as it devises electoral reform. Moreover, respect for the ECP’s autonomy and authority will be crucial for any credible election. The ECP’s preparations for the general elections, which could be complete by May 2023, include delineating constituencies, possibly based on a new census. This exercise should ensure that all sidelined groups, including women, are properly represented. Close cooperation between the executive and election authorities will also be needed to address a sizeable gender gap, close to 20 per cent, in the registration of female and male voters. An aggressive drive, with donor support, is needed to ensure that women are issued computerised national identity cards, a prerequisite for registering as voters. The card is also required for access to financial assistance earmarked for women, such as through the BISP.

Moving Ahead

The EU should respond positively to the Sharif government’s stated desire to reset the diplomatic ties that the former prime minister’s anti-Western agenda adversely affected. Islamabad’s growing concerns about militant threats, including from across the Afghan border, offer new opportunities for a security dialogue on issues of mutual concern. The extension of badly needed economic assistance would be particularly helpful to the new government, as it faces an unprecedented economic crisis.

Brussels should also look into expanding bilateral trade and investment ties with Islamabad, notably by renewing Pakistan’s GSP+ status, while making clear that the renewal is tied to human rights, rule of law and democratic governance conditions that the EU will monitor closely in the coming months. To assess the progress Islamabad makes on these conditions and to use the leverage that renewal can bring, the European External Action Service should move forward with its GSP+ mission, which was postponed due to Pakistan’s political crisis. In its dialogue with Islamabad, the mission should particularly focus on issues pertaining to the protection of women and children, as well as the enforcement of the freedom of association and speech enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution.

The European Union should support the new government’s efforts to provide social safety nets to the poorest and most vulnerable households.

Further, the European Union should support the new government’s efforts to provide social safety nets to the poorest and most vulnerable households, worst affected by the economic crisis. It should provide financial and technical aid to assist Pakistan in giving all women computerised national identity cards to afford them access to existing social safety programs, such as the BISP, and to any new ones (as well as to the ballot box). Brussels should also work with Islamabad in helping residents of the conflict-hit zones of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, particularly the tribal belt on the border with Afghanistan. Women and girls, who have borne the brunt of both militancy and military operations, should be a key target of such assistance.

Finally, the EU should encourage parliamentary reforms of the electoral legal framework. It should, for instance, urge Pakistan to consider the recommendations of the 2018 election observation mission, particularly with regard to restrictions on freedom of speech and association. Brussels should also consider sending an election observation mission for the forthcoming general elections, which would, as in the case of past missions, advise the ECP and the incoming government on areas of particular interest for electoral reform. At the very least, a credible electoral process may curb the potential for electoral disputes to degenerate into violence.

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