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Pakistan Marks First Peaceful Democratic Transition

Incoming PM Nawaz Sharif (L) takes the oath of office with other newly-elected parliamentarians during the first session of the National Assembly in Islamabad, June 1, 2013.
Incoming PM Nawaz Sharif (L) takes the oath of office with other newly-elected parliamentarians during the first session of the National Assembly in Islamabad, June 1, 2013.
Newly elected members of Pakistan’s National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, were sworn in Saturday marking the first transition of power from one democratically elected government to another in the 66-year history of the country.

Security was tight around the parliament building for the ceremonial inaugural session of the newly elected legislature. Outgoing National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza solemnly administered the oath to incoming lawmakers.

The political party of two-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dominates the new parliament, after a resounding victory in national elections May 11. The Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) captured 176 of the 342 seats in the lower house of parliament, overwhelming the Pakistan Peoples Party, the previous coalition leader, which won only 39 seats.

The election victory set the stage for 63-year-old Sharif to become the country’s chief executive for an unprecedented third time on Wednesday, when the National Assembly will formally elect a new prime minister.

Politicians and independent observers are praising the peaceful transition of power as a big step forward in strengthening democracy in Pakistan. New parliament member Khurram Dastagir Khan of Sharif’s political party was exuberant.

“The future of democracy today, when a new parliament has taken oath, is looking bright ‘inshallah’ (God willing), and will become brighter when an elected government will ‘inshallah’ start delivering to the people.”

Even members of the outgoing coalition government acknowledge that their five-year hold on power resulted in little progress on the issues facing ordinary Pakistanis, like power shortages, inflation and unemployment.

Newly elected legislator Farooq Sattar, a member of the regional political party known as MQM, the Muttahida Quami Movement that was part of the previous coalition, stressed that people needed to be empowered.

“The transfer of power from one democratic [institution] to the other... is good. But I think unless we connect the democracy with the people - empower the people at the grass-root [level] - I think only then democracy will become strong, stable and sustainable.”

Among the major challenges incoming Prime Minister Sharif will face are a badly ailing national economy, rampant corruption, massive energy shortages, a Taliban-led deadly militancy and Pakistan’s strained relations with the United States. After being sworn in Saturday, Sharif told reporters his party is ready to deal with the challenges.

Pakistan's powerful military has controlled the country - either by directly seizing power or by exercising influence from behind the scenes - for nearly half of its history as an independent nation. Coups and other interventions derailed democracy on a number of occasions, such as in October 1999, when a military takeover ousted Nawaz Sharif during his second term as prime minister. The leader of that coup, army chief Pervez Musharraf, went on to rule Pakistan for nearly a decade.

A majority of Pakistanis now hope that democratic practice will become the norm, discouraging future military interventions and ultimately leading to more government accountability.

Former cricket star Imran Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party won 35 seats, has vowed to act as a strong opposition and press the new government to deliver on its election promises. Khan did not attend Saturday’s swearing-in session of the parliament as he is still recovering after falling off a forklift in the last few days of the election campaign.