On Pakistan’s Election Day, Moeed Yusuf analyzes the significance of the country holding its third democratic election in a row amid a persistent power imbalance between the military and civilian spheres. Concerning U.S. interests, Yusuf says American engagement with Pakistan must go beyond Afghanistan issues, which Islamabad does not view as a top priority.

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Episode Transcript

Tim Farley (host):    We are going to shift overseas. Joining us on POTUS, Moeed Yusuf, Associate Vice President for the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace. It's election day today in Pakistan. The Twitter handle is @USIP. We want to find out what this election means. Moeed, welcome back. Thank you for being on the program today.

Moeed Yusuf:    Thank you for having me.

Tim Farley (host):    What is the significance, aside from any election day, but what is the special significance of the election today? 

Moeed Yusuf:    I think the first thing to note is that this is history for Pakistan, because it's third election in a row, and the second peaceful transition of democratic rule from one civilian government to the other. Pakistan's had an unfortunate history of military rule for half its 70 years of existence. The military has sort of taken over at least four times in this period. And every 10 years or so, there's almost a cyclical relationship. The civilians come in, and then the military, and then it's back to the civilians. This is now 10 years, and you've got an on-time election for the third time, and so that's something to celebrate just by itself. 

Tim Farley (host):    Does that mean then that there is balance? That there is equilibrium, if you will, between these two factions? 

Moeed Yusuf:    I'm not sure you can go that far. I think, one hopes that you've got a process going now where this will be uninterrupted, and over time you're going to start having a balance in a way that the civilians have a sort of supremacy over the military, as it should be. Unfortunately, the country still has a civil-military imbalance. The military has an exaggerated role, not only in the security sector, but also foreign policy and politics, and quite frankly, even this election.

There've been all sorts of allegations that the election has been manipulated and that the military has picked a favorite: in this case, the cricketer turned politician, Imran Khan, who seems to be leading. The pre-polls, at least, suggesting that he was leading. So, it's still not the fairest election for sure. But at the end of the day, there were also these question marks on whether the election will happen, whether it will happen on time, whether we're going to have some other non-democratic solution to politics. And thankfully, that's not happened. 

Tim Farley (host):    Aside from the tension between military and civilian rule, there are clearly some issues that need to be resolved, or at least a handled, by the next administration or the next government in Pakistan, including, I guess, their economic crisis right now, which you say is a real crisis. Explain that. 

Moeed Yusuf:    Yeah. It's a totally unenviable position for any government, no matter who wins here. Pakistan's got a serious balance of payments crisis. Very oddly enough, two years ago, Bloomberg and the Economist and others were writing about the success of the Pakistani economy, a turnaround, looking at higher growth rates, and sort of an economic equilibrium. And, here we are with a balance of payments crisis, in a way, that Pakistan's really got to find ways to externally fund its ballooning trade deficit, fiscal deficit. And within two or three months, you're going to be at a real, real crisis point. Whichever government takes over, they're going to have to very quickly look for funding. 

Whether they've got to raise debt externally through bonds, or they've got to go to the IMF for a package, or perhaps to their strategic ally in China, or even the U.S. in the past has bailed out Pakistan a number of times. But at the moment, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, it's so bad that I think you can rule that out. But, in any case, the dollar exchange rate to the local currency was at about a hundred for the past four or five years. It has now reached 130 within the last three months. So, that's the kind of problem they're facing, inflation, et cetera. It's going to be a serious, serious challenge for whoever comes in. I don't envy the person who is going to become prime minister here, but this is real. This is not made up. They have to do something a fairly, fairly quickly. 

Tim Farley (host):    Moeed Yusuf with us, Associate Vice President for the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace Way. Moeed, we typically look at the U.S. relationship with Pakistan through the filter of Afghanistan. It's not an elephant in the room, it's just the other country. It's almost like a hump on the back, if you will, [for] Pakistan, is with what's happening with Afghanistan. Any sense that this can be resolved? Any sense that the U.S. relationship with Pakistan can improve? 

Moeed Yusuf:    I'm one of those that has argued that there are structural problems. One of the problems, quite frankly, is that we're looking at Pakistan only from an Afghanistan lens. And so all the other issues in the relationship, including the economic relationship — the U.S. still remains Pakistan's largest export market, and there are thousands of Pakistanis who go to the U.S. to study every year, and are essentially leverage for the U.S. — but that's not being worked on at all. It's really the focus on Afghanistan and there too on Pakistan's sort of link to the Taliban, and Haqqani network factions. I think, for the first time, I would argue there is an opening, if we can seize the moment. We've seen in Afghanistan, there's been a ceasefire a couple of months back. There have been statements that there could be serious conversations with the Taliban, in which the U.S. and the Afghan government are involved. 

I think if we can move to a political settlement kind of debate and process in Afghanistan, there is a greater likelihood that the U.S. and Pakistan can work together to try and force the Taliban to negotiate seriously and become part of the Afghan mainstream political system. So far, the ask of Pakistan has been to deal with the Taliban and Haqqani network, and neutralize their presence, and that's something Pakistan has been very reluctant to do — at least I've argued, Pakistan probably will not do, no matter what kind of pressure is built on it. But if the conversation broadens to a political settlement, within that, I think Pakistan can find ways to address its own concerns vis-a-vis Afghanistan, and assist the U.S. in terms of trying to get the Taliban to the table — to agree to become a part of politics rather than the insurgency. 

Tim Farley (host):    Finally, on the optimism/pessimism scale, where are you now on the election and the aftermath in Pakistan? 

Moeed Yusuf:    Well, net negative. I don't know what that makes it on a scale of zero to 10, but net negative, because, first of all, I think it's going to be a weak coalition government. Pakistan's not going to find a party with a simple majority, with real authority. And then, as I said, the economic crisis is deep, so even if there is a clear transition to a new government, I think what you've got to really watch is: between now and December, can they manage the crisis, or are we going to end up in a situation where the opposition basically creates a deadlock and makes the country ungovernable? That won't be the first time in Pakistan's history, but I do feel that the way polls are shaping up, you may have a very, very weak government unable to really make the bold decisions needed economically for the country right now. 

Tim Farley (host):    Moeed Yusuf, thank you for joining us on POTUS today.

Moeed Yusuf:    Always a pleasure.

Tim Farley (host):    We will watch the elections taking place in Pakistan. That's why Moeed was joining us. He is Associate Vice President for the Asian Center at the United States Institute of Peace, giving us perspective on today's elections in Pakistan. The Twitter handle is @USIP.

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