Pakistan has had three military coups
Next, a caretaker government will oversee elections
The milestone has come with a price
Musharraf has said he will return this month
At the stroke of midnight Sunday, Pakistan made history.
It marked the first time a democratically-elected government served a full five-year term in the country’s 65-year history.
In its short existence, Pakistan has experienced three military coups, been ruled by generals for half its life, and it remains mired in near-constant political turmoil.
“Despite all the odds, completion of the term is an extraordinary and historic achievement,” Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said in an address to the nation Saturday night.
Ashraf said his country has a long history of confrontation between democratic and nondemocratic forces, but that democracy has now notched a victory.
In the next few days, a caretaker government will be put in place to oversee the country through its next elections scheduled for May.
Success at a price
While the five-year term completion is a milestone well worth nothing, it has come with a price.
The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party rode to power on the back of a populace disillusioned with then-President Pervez Musharraf’s policies that led to shortage of essential food items, power cuts and a skyrocketing inflation.
Pakistanis also disapproved of the way Musharraf carried out his end of the “war on terror” – and used it as a crutch to explain away many of his unpopular moves.
And the nation was collectively mourning the death of PPP leader Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated just months before the
last elections in February 2008.
Very few held out hope the PPP would resolve the many problems that plagued Pakistan.
And throughout its five-year term, it seemed it couldn’t.
Minister after minister were tainted with accusations of corruption.
The power outages and food shortages that Pakistanis complained about remain.
Terror attacks in city centers continued with depressing regularity.
Violence directed at the Shiite minority reached new heights.
And Pakistanis called the government stooges of the United States, while Washington grumbled that Pakistan was not doing enough to confront militants.
Through it all, the shaky coalition the PPP cobbled together seemed on the verge of collapse every few months as partners threatened to walk away at the slightest disagreement.
“We could not provide rivers of milk and honey but tried our best to alleviate the country’s problems,” Ashraf said in his Saturday speech.
Staying the course
But credit goes to two factors that helped the government stay the course:
The military was content to sit on the sidelines through the topsy-turvy turns – even when it seemed that the widening rift with the government would force it to intervene as it has in the past.
And President Asif Ali Zardari – Bhutto’s widower – proved surprisingly agile at survival.
Three years ago, he handed over much of his power to the prime minister – and in the process, robbed his critics of the accusation that he was amassing power like his predecessor.
He also transferred some power from the central government to the provincial level.
Against this backdrop comes news that Musharraf plans to return to Pakistan from self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates, and lead his party in upcoming elections.
Musharraf plans to fly on a commercial airline into Karachi on March 24, then attend a rally with 50,000 people, including more than 200 Pakistani expatriates from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, he said in a statement.
Five years is often enough time for a populace to forgive and forget.
It remains to be seen whether Pakistan, now soured by PPP’s reign, welcomes him back with open arms.
CNN’s Nasir Habib reported from Islamabad; Saeed Ahmed wrote from Atlanta.
CNN’s Saima Mohsin also contributed.