by Elena Marda
The recent Pakistani elections have received sustained attention by the world media and the appointment of Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister spurred optimism regarding the relations of Pakistan with India. On May 15th, the EU-Asia Center organised a policy briefing on the outcome of the Pakistani elections and its consequent implications for regional security. Fraser Cameron, Director of EU-Asia Centre, in a pleasant anchorman-style way moderated the discussion which revolved around four thematic clusters: the content of the electoral campaign and the elections outcome, the priorities to be set, the effects on regional security, and the future of EU-Pakistan relations.
The Pakistani electoral campaign was concentrated on pragmatic issues, such as economy, development and energy, while nationalistic elements were mostly absent from the agenda. The majority of the panellists agreed that the overall assessment of the electoral procedure, especially compared to past efforts, was of a positive outcome. Social media and civil society came out stronger after the elections and Huma Yusuf, Columnist at ‘Dawn’, conveyed the excitement of the people and stressed the fact that voter turnout of the middle class and youth increased significantly. Nevertheless, Dr. Martin Axmann, Resident Representative of Hanns-Seidel Foundation, remained reserved regarding the success of the elections and reminded that attacks on progressive parties raise serious doubts about the labelling the elections as ‘free and fair’. He informed the audience that almost no voting was organised in Balochistan and he rejected the idea that there had been any kind of shift in Pakistan’s politics.
With an economy that is lacking a functioning tax collection system and a probable IMF bailout on the way, all participants agreed that the number one priority for Pakistan is the development of opportunities through the boost of economy and the amelioration of education. In addition, the promotion of human rights and the protection of minorities were also deemed as necessary in order to guarantee the stability of the region. Underlining that Pakistan’s political history demonstrates that political bodies and institutions are allowed to function only to the extent that they do not become an obstacle to the military establishment’s activities, Dr. Axmann advocated the restraining of the military as an essential component of Pakistan’s democratisation.
Stefanie Babst, Head, Strategic Analysis Capability to the Secretary General and Chairman of the Military Committee at NATO, drew the audience’s attention to the repositioning of certain actors (China, India, Iran) regarding Pakistan, and reiterated the support of NATO for regional reconciliation processes. Although the partnership has been cooled after 2010, an interest to rewarm this relationship has been articulated by Islamabad. Dr. Axman, adopting a less positive stance, noted that, in his view, there is no indication for real change since foreign policy remains under the exclusive responsibility of the military. Responding to a question about the implication of the Kashmir, Shada Islam, Head of Policy at Friends of Europe, underlined that the process of regional integration does not necessarily require solving core issues, but efforts should rather be concentrated on developing a solid trade relationship between India and Pakistan that would be beneficial for both.
The 5-year Engagement Plan is at the core of EU-Pakistan relations for Ugo Astuco, Director for South and South East Asia at EEAS. Until recently, particular attention was given to the organisation of elections, but now that this goal has been achieved, education and cooperation with local NGOs are becoming top priorities for the EU in Pakistan. Mrs. Yusuf, expressing a Pakistani perspective, pointed to the importance of trade between the EU and Pakistan, and to the opening up to Pakistani exports that would foster economic development. Mrs. Islam welcomed the fact that Pakistan is now part of the EU’s Asia policy; however, she warned that, although the EU is being particularly proactive in supporting human rights activists and in engaging with civilian political forces, Pakistan still does not attract the attention of European foreign policy makers. She suggested that the EU should take advantage of the positive image that is being projected in the country and bring together journalists, academia and think-tankers from Pakistan, India and Afghanistan to exchange views about the needs of the region.