A peaceful election and transition process with EU observers could herald a new era in Pakistan, a European Parliament seminar with experts from across the political, aid and academic spectrum heard today.
The event, on the challenges facing Pakistan in the run-up to elections due in May, was sponsored by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group and hosted by West Midlands Lib Dem MEP Phillip Bennion and German (FDP) MEP Alexander Lambsdorff.
After outlining the economic and security challenges facing Pakistan that will have to be taken on by the next government, Dr Bennion said:
"A peaceful election is vital. If successful, this would be the first time in the history of Pakistan that a government has served a full five year Parliamentary term without military intervention and handed over to a new administration based on the outcome of the elections.
"This would send a strong signal right the way across Pakistan society that this is normal, and marginalise the Taliban and anti-democratic elements. The major role of the EU will be in monitoring. We are willing to provide a delegation to do this.
"There is remarkable agreement across all the parties in Pakistan that the EU should send monitors and get involved in this way. The more peaceful and stable Pakistan is, the easier it will be to deliver stability in Afghanistan as troops are withdrawn. It is a vital piece in the jigsaw. I am fairly optimistic."
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob and Aasiya Riaz of PILDAT (Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency), the most eminent independent public policy think tank in Pakistan, spoke about the level of preparation for the elections being a step change from previous elections.
The independence of the Electoral Commission and a Caretaker Government has been established, female voter registration has increased from around 30% to 44% of the total electorate, youth registration is strong and the electoral code of conduct is far better developed, they reported. PILDAT's conclusion was unequivocal that Pakistan is 'better prepared for a free and fair election than ever before.'
Qassim Afzal , a member of the UK Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and chair of Liberal Democrat Friends of Pakistan, pointed out that elected governments in Pakistan had often failed to live up to expectations in the past, but the core belief in democracy in the country remained strong. He believed the vibrant civil society and free press in Pakistan was a reason for optimism and praised efforts of the European Union and wider international community to help build up democratic capacity in Pakistan.
Gillian Cowell of the British Council running the project Next Generation in Pakistan concentrated on the vast increase in young voters, due to the "youth bulge" whereby 48% of the registered voters are under the age of 35. She said it was worrying that a minority in their poll thought democracy the best way forward for Pakistan, but the poll was taken back in 2009 before most of these young people had registered to vote.
Michaela Wright and Paolo Silvia of the EU External Action Service concentrated on the challenges facing the economy in Pakistan, but also on the preparation for the sending of EU election monitors. When an European Parliament delegation (which included Phil Bennion) visited Pakistan last year all political parties were keen that the EU should be invited to monitor the election and it was good to hear that preparations are at an advanced stage.
Ambassador His Excellency Munawar Saeed Bhatti emphasised that the democratic spirit in Pakistan is undiminished, despite the security and economic threats in the country. He also pointed to the free media, civil society and mature political parties and active involvement of young people – with 11 million Facebook users - and they would mobilise during the election campaign. He thought that the Electoral Commission and Caretaker System had all-party and public confidence and also assured the meeting that all was being done to ensure security for all voters and observers.
He said: "Pakistan is on the verge of a new era altogether, a dream coming true, that a political government will have completed its term, a caretaker government appointed by consensus and then have elections under a fully empowered Election Commission. Everyone is looking forward to building a new Pakistan once the electoral process is completed."
"We have enormous challenges but we should also look at the resilience of the people of Pakistan. We are looking at creating a stronger democracy, a factor and force for stability in the entire region."
Caption: Left to right in photo: Aasiya Riaz, Ahmed Bilal Mehboob (PILDAT), Qassim Afzal, Phil Bennion MEP, Alexander Lambsdorff MEP, H.E. Munawar Saeed Bhatti.