A lot of Americans were surprised by the results of the US elections. With a sluggish economy, protracted wars, and low approval ratings in opinion polls, many expected the Democrats to be defeated. When the votes were counted, though, President Obama was re-elected by a wide margin and the Democrats retained control of the Senate. That this outcome was unexpected was more the result of media narratives than common sense. National elections are about a choice – and in this election, the choice was pretty clear.
One of the biggest myths in this election was that President Obama could not win as long as the economy continued to struggle. Political pundits repeated the mantra that "no president has been re-elected with unemployment this high." Whether or not this was historically accurate, it ignored the fact that the economy was improving (albeit slowly). In order to unseat Obama, the Republicans needed to present an alternative to Obama's economic policies that voters saw as both better and realistic. When independent economists examined Mitt Romney’s economic plan, they widely dismissed it as fantasy. Voters chose to stick with what they knew was working.
In addition to the economy, national security was a key issue in the election. Despite ending the war in Iraq, beginning to wind down the war in Afghanistan, overseeing the death of Osama bin Laden, and supporting pro-democracy movements during the Arab Spring, President Obama faced criticism over the attack on the American embassy in Libya and the ongoing crisis in Syria.
The Republicans, however, again struggled to communicate an alternative national security policy that voters found convincingly better and realistic. Americans want to see an end to the war in Afghanistan, but not an abandonment of the Afghan people; they want to see resolution in Syria, but not American involvement in another war. The Republicans were unable to credibly explain how they would better secure US interests, so voters chose to stick with President Obama.
Like the Democratic Party's 2008 campaign slogans, "Hope" and "Change", the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was elected in 2008 because it promised the people of Pakistan a new direction after decades under military rule. The PPP's slogan – "Food, Clothing, Shelter" – was a promise to directly address the needs of the nation's most needy, and one that resonated with ordinary Pakistanis' empathy for their less fortunate countrymen. It was a promise that the present government has made good on in part through programs like the Benazir Income Support Program, which has been successful both in providing a social safety net and helping empower more Pakistani women through financial independence.
But it's not only Pakistan's poor who have benefitted over the past four years. While Pakistan continues to face significant economic challenges, many important economic indicators have risen since 2008. Pakistan's GDP is up 47 per cent since 2008. Inflation, which was a whopping 25 per cent before President Zardari was sworn in, is now at 9 per cent. Even unemployment – an issue that continues to plague even the most advanced economies – has been relatively stable, shifting between 5 and 6 per cent since 2008. By comparison, the unemployment rate under General Musharraf's regime in 2002 was 7.8 per cent. New trade accords have been negotiated with both the US and the EU. The economy may be improving slowly, but it is improving.
National security, too, will be a key issue in Pakistan's next elections. Pakistan's sacrifice in the war on terrorism cannot be overstated. Tens of thousands of Pakistani lives have been sacrificed; the economy continues to suffer as risk-averse investors hold back from potentially lucrative markets; and a public facing the threat of extremist militants lives in fear of Afghanistan's war further spilling over into their own country.
Whereas in the early 2000s General Musharraf essentially sold Pakistan's sovereignty, the present government has changed direction and demanded to be treated with the dignity and respect due an allied nation. The Parliamentary Committee on National Security may have presented a temporary inconvenience to Nato, but it was essential to establishing a sustainable national security policy informed by democratic consensus. Pakistan is, for the first time, developing a national security policy that balances its national interests with its international obligations. Such a policy will take time to see results, but it is the only path to ensuring a peaceful and prosperous future.
With high personal favorability ratings in opinion polls and a populist message, many expect charismatic cricket legend Imran Khan to emerge as Pakistan's next Prime Minister. But there are reasons to believe this too may be based more in media narratives than electoral reality.
Talk about shooting down American drones and withdrawing from the fight against militants may resonate with a war-weary public's desire for a quick end to the present crisis, but it ignores the obvious consequences such actions would entail in the real world – consequences that could exacerbate, rather than alleviate, suffering. Likewise, Khan's promise to end corruption in 90 days is widely viewed by experts as lofty campaign rhetoric with little chance of success in the real world.
Next year, Pakistanis will be presented with a choice: Whether to give the present governing coalition more time to continue its social, economic, and national security policies, or to start over add try something different. Unless one of the major opposition parties can present an alternative that voters believe is both better and realistic, don't be surprised if Pakistan's next government looks pretty similar to the present one as well.