ISLAMABAD — On May 11, Pakistan will hold national elections to usher in a new civilian government. After decades of military rule and political instability, this will be the first time in the country's history that a civilian government will transfer power through the ballot box. The handover reflects a shift in the relationship between civilian and military institutions in Pakistan.
Army leader General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has kept his vow to keep the military out of politics. After decades of military coups and political interventions, May's national elections will mark the first time a government has completed its five-year term and peacefully handed over power to another civilian government.
Former military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas says both the military and civilian leaderships have matured since the country first became an Islamic republic in 1956.
"I would say the military leadership of this time has taken the principled decision to support democracy and not to allow the system to derail in any case, because they believe this is the way forward, as far as our nation, our country is concerned," Abbas said.
That decision is a milestone for Pakistan's democratic development and an expansion of the democratic process. This year for the first time, political parties are being allowed to campaign in the military-controlled northwest Federally Administered Tribal Areas - known as FATA -- on the border with Afghanistan.
Ashraf Ali, president of the FATA research center, says permitting those campaigns are a first step to integrating the region into the country's political mainstream.
“There is quite a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the masses who know that now this process is ours," Ali said. "They have been given a sense of ownership now. Previously it was the case they were excluded from the political process and that was the crux of the issues. Now they have been given the sense of ownership that these elections are meant for you, these are from you, and these are for you."
Ali says this sense of inclusion may also help the civilian leadership to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban, which in turn could affect how the military moves forward in the militant strongholds.
"I believe that things are getting changed in FATA, in the given circumstances," Ali said. "I believe the civil-military relations are going to be getting better, and I believe now there is a realization on the part of the army, as well that it is the job of the civilian governments, that it is not the military to deliver on that front. It is going to be the job of the political administration to deliver."
Former ambassador Karl Inderfurth of the United States Institute of Peace says the changes taking place within and between the civilian and military leaderships will prove extraordinarily important for Pakistan.
But he cautions that it is a relationship that cannot be taken for granted.
"It is fair to say that the military, including the ISI, which is part of the military, remain key players in the political dynamic of Pakistan and will remain that way for the foreseeable future," the ambassador noted. "Indeed a democratic Pakistan and a strong military these are not incompatible; it is a question though of the military respect for and willingness to abide by, the decisions of a democratically elected civilian leadership. That is the issue here."
In economically fragile Pakistan, many point to weak growth, unemployment and the country’s ongoing energy crisis as major concerns for the incoming government.
Retired General Talat Masood says the economy has become so central for both the armed forces and the civilians that the two can no longer afford to move in different directions. But he warns that if a new government is too weak to govern effectively, the balance of power may tip once again.
"Well, I would say that if the next government fails to deliver to the minimum as far as the economy is concerned to meet the energy needs, the educational needs, and does not turn this somewhat semi-dysfunctional state into a functional state, then obviously the power of the military forces and the bureaucracy will increase, along maybe with the judiciary, and they will then fill in the vacuum," he said.
Overall, analysts agree the military will remain a key player in Pakistan, though it will likely remain behind the scenes. The question that remains is to what extent the country's top generals will abide by the national and foreign policy decisions of a newly-elected civilian leadership.