Foreign policy rarely decides elections anywhere in the world. Pakistan is no different. The country’s upcoming polls will most likely reflect disappointment in the current government and hopes for a better one, but the result is unlikely to serve as a popular mandate on foreign policy.

And because long-term national interests and structural factors generally determine foreign policy, such policies often persist regardless of who holds political power. Decisionmaking on Pakistan’s foreign affairs is an increasingly complex process reflecting a growing number of interest groups and external factors. Elections therefore affect foreign policy mostly on the margins, but they can and do influence decisions and set the trend for future developments.  

Frederic Grare
Frédéric Grare is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on Indo-Pacific dynamics, the search for a security architecture, and South Asia Security issues.
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Civil-military relations and how they influence threat perception and the definition of the national interest will likely remain the biggest variable in Pakistan’s foreign policy. And the elections will help determine how much space civilian leaders have to operate. 

The elections are unlikely to produce a wholesale change in Islamabad’s thinking, but might enable a shift in how Pakistan conducts foreign policy. 

The competing political parties in Pakistan have defined their foreign policy priorities only vaguely, and the likelihood of coalition building will further dilute each party’s ability to enact its preferred policies. 

Should the mainstream parties win an overwhelming majority, their task will be easier in foreign policy. But if the election produces a divided parliament with no clear majority, the demands of coalition politics will grant more marginal parties—with more extreme views—a disproportionate role in policymaking. This will also allow the military and the intelligence agencies to more easily manipulate the decisionmaking process. 

Depending on the results, Pakistan’s next government could be more cooperative in its foreign relations and even show less tolerance for state-sponsored terrorism in order to help pursue its regional and global objectives. Such a result could, over time, change Pakistan’s relations with its neighborhood and help define a new South Asia.

The Military's Role

The Pakistani military deserves its reputation for political engineering. Often operating behind the scenes, it has been known to make and unmake majorities and governments to maintain its primacy and impose its will. Most analysts see the army as the real decisionmaker in matters of foreign policy and defense, even when a civilian government is in office. 

Historically, the military has undoubtedly imposed major political constraints on the definition and implementation of Pakistan’s foreign policy. But it still bears noting that some high-ranking civil servants and major political parties have traditionally shared the military’s views on foreign policy. Nonetheless, in recent months the civilian government has enjoyed slightly more political space on foreign policy.

The military’s influence on foreign policy has clearly changed over the past five years. Before 2011, the military professed its loyalty to the democratic system and the elected civilian authorities, but it showed a complete disregard for the government’s opinion on defense and foreign policy matters. 

For example, only a few weeks into President Asif Ali Zardari’s term in 2008, Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani slammed the new government over Zardari’s remarks on a nuclear no-first-use policy on Indian television. Similarly, Zardari’s hopes of a rapprochement with India were dashed after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, which were allegedly engineered largely by Pakistani security forces. And the military had almost complete autonomy in determining Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan. 

However, the series of serious incidents that characterized 2011 marked an inflection point in the relationship between the military and civilians over foreign policy. Prior to this point, the dominant perception was that the United States and the international community needed Pakistan much more than Pakistan needed them. 

Things changed in 2011. The raid against Osama bin Laden and the resulting suspicion that Pakistan may have provided shelter for years to the most wanted man in the world contributed to Islamabad’s international isolation. But things changed most significantly after U.S. forces mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border checkpoint near Salala. Islamabad’s retaliatory closure of overland supply routes for U.S. forces in Afghanistan certainly increased NATO’s costs, but it also produced the unintended consequence of demonstrating that the United States was capable of operating in the region without Pakistani support. 

A growing economic crisis and the prospect of a “divorce” from the United States forced Pakistan’s security establishment to rethink its posture and opened up new opportunities for the civilian leadership. For instance, the Zardari government has been able to begin a gradual rapprochement with India. While this policy shift would likely have been impossible without tacit military acceptance, it was nevertheless engineered by the civilian government on its own initiative, convincingly suggesting an expanded role for elected civilians in foreign policy.

Public Opinion

Even with greater space for civilian leaders to operate, the impact of public opinion on foreign policy is surprisingly absent from most debates on Pakistan’s external affairs. 

William B. Milam and Matthew J. Nelson argue that populism is a political constant in Pakistan’s foreign policy. They feel that the military and its intelligence agencies cannot generate new public beliefs, but can only shore up existing ones by suppressing countervailing views. Pakistan’s elites—both civilian and military—“are properly afraid of the street and its protest power,” and essentially follow public opinion rather that direct it. 

This argument undoubtedly contains an element of truth. No system, no matter how authoritarian, can survive without a minimal threshold of popular support. Specifically applied to foreign policy, the argument is also valid because no Pakistani leader can afford to run afoul of popular nationalism. 

All issues implicating Pakistani sovereignty are potential landmines for policymakers. In the past, the military has turned this dynamic to its advantage, portraying myriad controversial foreign policy issues—including the Mumbai attacks—as matters of state sovereignty in order to ensure popular backing. 

Public views on foreign policy have also evolved considerably over the past ten years, varying in both substance and intensity. For example, most Pakistanis may not feel particularly strongly about the Kashmir dispute, despite the issue’s prominent status in Islamabad’s foreign policy. There is widespread sympathy for the cause, to be sure, but support for going to war over it is much more limited. 

And public views of India have changed, often with surprising speed. In 2004, for example, part of the public became much more open to improving relations with India after religious political parties were mobilized in favor of rapprochement. This allowed Pervez Musharraf to take some relatively bold initiatives and demonstrated that public opinion could be influenced in one direction or another. 

But even where fundamental elements of Pakistani national interest are concerned, public opinion never dictates the instruments of policy implementation. Political actors retain the ability to implement policies—be they confrontational or cooperative—as they see fit. 

In other words, there is ample space for political actors to determine the way foreign policy is implemented. 

Political Parties

Distinctions are apparent among the foreign policy agendas and statements of the main political actors. The parties generally converge in their articulations of major foreign priorities—particularly relations with the United States and India and the Kashmir dispute—but diverge significantly in their policy prescriptions. 

Of course, public manifestos and official statements are often both vague and mercurial, and therefore imperfect predictors of future policies. Nevertheless, public statements serve as useful illustrations of points of convergence and divergence in the major actors’ foreign policy thinking and possible future actions.

While the major political parties generally agree about Pakistan’s relationship with China, they divide sharply on relations with the United States. The religious political parties of Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami and their allies, including Tehreek-e-Insaf, strongly criticize the current U.S.-Pakistani relationship. But the mainstream parties—both the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League—are more accepting of Pakistan’s ties with Washington. 

The religious parties never miss an opportunity to portray the current government’s foreign policy as weak, implying or asserting that it has allowed Washington to threaten or coerce Pakistan. In the past five years, both Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami have called for the Pakistani government to distance itself from United States. 

These religious parties oppose alignment with non-Muslim states and demand an end to American drone strikes. The Defense of Pakistan Council (Difa-e-Pakistan), a collection of some 40 religious groups, political parties, and banned militant organizations, takes an even more categorical stance, favoring a complete end to U.S.-Pakistan relations and increased support for the Afghan Taliban. 

Tehreek-e-Insaf, led by former cricket superstar Imran Khan, is surfing the same wave of anti-Americanism. Khan blames successive Pakistani governments for compromising Pakistani honor and security by working with the United States and, according to Malik Siraj Akbar, “terms U.S. assistance to Pakistan a curse that has, in his views, transformed the Islamic Republic into an American colony.” In the same spirit, Tehreek-e-Insaf condemns U.S. drone strikes and argues that Taliban ideology is not a threat to Pakistan. 

By contrast, none of the mainstream parties reject relations with the United States, although they too take into account the prominent anti-Americanism in the country. According to its manifesto, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) will “strengthen and enhance friendly relations and deep rooted economic ties with all countries of the world,” suggesting a broader policy of nonalignment. 

Similarly, the PPP credits itself with “reframing a more enduring, balanced and clearly defined partnership with the US, rooted in mutuality of interest and respect, while securing the largest-ever economic assistance package for Pakistan,” implying that mutual respect was missing in the past. At no point does it question the need for a strong relationship with the United States. 

When it comes to Afghanistan, both sets of parties tend to condemn U.S. policies toward Kabul and denounce the consequences for Pakistan. The parties vary, however, in their specific approaches to Afghanistan. As noted above, Tehreek-e-Insaf sees no Taliban threat to Pakistan, while the PPP argues for “Pakistan’s outreach to the Afghan government, as well as the opposition parties, and its support for a comprehensive reconciliation process led and owned by the Afghans.”

India occupies a distant second place on the parties’ lists of priorities. The parties all identify Kashmir as the primary irritant working with Pakistan’s eastern neighbor, but there are clear divides on how best to deal with the issue and manage the relationship. 

The mainstream parties all seek an expanded dialogue with New Delhi. The PML-N references the need to resolve the Kashmir issue in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions and endorses a peaceful and negotiated settlement of all disputes with India, while the PPP wants an honest and sincere dialogue. By contrast, the religious parties demand that the most-favored-nation status granted to India (although not yet implemented) be revoked. 

Tehreek-e-Insaf, however, takes an original position designed to satisfy its relatively broad electoral base. To appease the Islamist wing of the party, it takes a hardline on Kashmir and strongly condemns drone strikes. At the same time, it acknowledges its more moderate liberal elements in its advocacy of cordial working relations with India and support for an improved relationship with the United States based on normal trade relations rather than foreign assistance. 

Overall, the parties’ electoral agendas align in their perceptions of Pakistan’s geopolitical environment and national priorities. They differ, however, in their views on how best to realize the nation’s objectives. Mainstream parties advocate a much more cooperative approach based on more robust engagement with both the region and the world. 

Election Prospects

How these elements will play out in the upcoming elections remains unclear and will depend in large part on electoral mathematics. Assuming the military continues its relatively hands-off approach to foreign policy, the victory of the PML-N or the PPP will likely lead to a much more peaceful approach to foreign policy.

Recent polling data show an advantage for the PML-N. An average of 36.5 percent of Pakistanis nationwide plan to vote for a PML-N candidate, placing the party far ahead of Tehreek-e-Insaf (16 percent), the PPP (15.5 percent), and the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (3 percent). 

These results should be viewed with caution, however. Because Pakistan’s parliamentary system allocates seats by electoral unit—not on a national basis—nationwide statistics may not tell the full story of the election. Moreover, as no party gets a clear majority at the national level or in the provinces (with the exception of the PML-N in Punjab), it is all but inevitable that the election will produce a coalition government and these dynamics are difficult to predict through polling alone.  

It also remains to be seen if Tehreek-e-Insaf will realize its objective of upsetting the status quo and challenging the mainstream parties. The party suffers from a significant gap between its popularity and its perceived electability, suggesting that its high visibility and strong media presence may not translate to a victory at the polls.

Finally, it is impossible to rule out electoral manipulations of some sort. Although the international community judged the 2008 elections to be free and fair, the Electoral Commission of Pakistan later determined that about half of the entries in the voter rolls were fraudulent. 

At this point, however, most analysts remain optimistic that the 2013 elections will be transparent and legitimate. Coalition politics is therefore likely to be the rule of the game, so a consensus foreign policy is unlikely to emerge. 

What Can the Elections Achieve?

The military’s apparent laissez-faire attitude toward foreign policy, the relatively similar policy approaches among the mainstream parties, and the current electoral predictions all point to one conclusion: the elections are unlikely to produce a sea change in Pakistani foreign policy. The results will determine, however, the degree of legitimacy and political maneuvering space the winning party or coalition may enjoy, with significant implications for foreign policy.

Should one of the mainstream political parties secure a decisive victory, Pakistan will be more likely to pursue cooperative policies at the regional and international level. Mainstream parties on both ends of the ideological spectrum have demonstrated in the past a greater tendency to try to resolve disputes peacefully, so it is reasonable to expect that they will continue to behave this way once in power, provided they receive a clear electoral mandate.

But if narrower electoral margins force the PPP or the PML-N to align with a broader range of coalition partners—especially smaller and more radical parties—those more marginal parties may wield disproportionate influence in the policy arena and open venues for subsequent manipulations.

As such, even free and fair elections are unlikely to produce an entirely novel definition of Pakistan’s strategic environment and threat perception, but they are very much part of an incremental evolution toward a more peaceful Pakistani foreign policy.