Pakistan government ends historic 5-year term

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s government passed a major milestone Saturday, with the parliament becoming the first democratically chosen body to finish its five-year term in a country that has faced three military coups and persistent political turmoil.

But after years of militant attacks, worsening electricity blackouts and faltering economic growth, the political party that took office five years ago on a wave of sympathy following the assassination of iconic leader Benazir Bhutto will likely find it more difficult this time to win voters to its side.

Underscoring divisions, politicians failed to reach agreement on a caretaker government in time for the final session of parliament before new elections are held. The country’s constitution calls for a vote within 60 days, although no date has yet been set.

Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, who maintains his position in the meantime, hailed the peaceful transition as a success for his Pakistan People’s Party,

“We have strengthened the foundations of democracy to such an extent that no one will be able to harm democracy in future,” Ashraf said during a nearly hourlong televised address to the nation.

Ashraf portrayed the problems in the country as something inherited from the previous regime of ousted leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

One of the ruling party’s main achievements has been its sheer survival — no small feat in a country that has experienced three successful coups and many more unsuccessful ones.

President Asif Ali Zardari has shown a remarkable ability to hold together a warring coalition government whose members threaten to quit every few months or so. He’s also managed a balance between the need for U.S. assistance amid a deteriorating relationship between the two countries and rising anti-American sentiment.

Washington needs Pakistan’s help fighting al-Qaida and stabilizing neighboring Afghanistan, but a series of recent scandals have severely damaged ties. CIA contractor Raymond Davis shot and killed two Pakistani men in Lahore, the U.S. unilaterally killed Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad and American forces accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops along the Afghan border.

“That the government has survived five years, despite rumors every three months that the government is going, should also be viewed as a kind of achievement,” independent political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said.

Zardari and the ruling party must share some of the credit. The army, traditionally eager to step in when they perceive Pakistan to be in crisis, has shown a reticence under Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to involve itself at least outwardly in politics.

The main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-N led by Nawaz Sharif, has bypassed numerous opportunities to make life difficult for the PPP. Sharif has just as much invested in strengthening the civilian government as the PPP does, and is no friend of the army.

Sharif’s party and one led by former Pakistani cricket star Imran Khan will present the greatest challenge to the PPP in the coming election.

The government’s most high-profile accomplishments in the past five years have involved changing the power structure, rather than dealing with basic problems facing ordinary Pakistanis.

Through a constitutional amendment passed in 2010 under pressure from the opposition, Zardari followed through on promises to strip the presidency of many of the powers it gained under Musharraf.

The amendment prevents the president from unilaterally dissolving parliament and gives the prime minister a major role in appointing the country’s armed services chiefs. The amendment also transfers considerable powers from the central government to the provinces.

But it’s questionable whether these moves will deliver many votes. It’s mostly the economy that will be on voters’ minds.