Since independence in 1947, Pakistan’s history has been characterized by political and social instability, despite its relative religious homogeneity.
Corruption charges for high-ranking politicians and coups d’etat have been regular occurrences, with only three governments managing to serve their full tenure and no single party maintaining dominance long enough to provide political continuity.
The first decade of the new millennium saw the rise of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, with significant terror-related activities occurring in Pakistan’s northern territories, and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the country’s two-time prime minister.
With the rise of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the PTI, Pakistan has increasingly focused on reform and fostering stability amid structural economic challenges and a continuing, if at times seemingly ambivalent, war on terror.
A number of key events between 2010 and 2019 have highlighted Pakistan’s primary struggles and accomplishments.
The rise of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf
2010 dawned with Pakistan’s government in the hands of the PPP, the left-wing Pakistani Peoples Party, founded by Benazir Bhutto’s father.
In April of 2010, Asif Ali Zardari, then president and widower of Benazir Bhutto, transformed the Pakistani state into a complete parliamentary system, concentrating more power in the hands of the Prime Minister. Within two years then-PPP Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani would be forced to resign amid a corruption case concerning Zardari himself.
The 2013 election saw a victory from Nawaz Sharif and the Muslim League-N, or PML-N. Sharif would also be forced to resign in 2017 following yet another corruption case. In the midst of this turmoil, a new political party, the PTI, or Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, led by former cricket star Imran Khan, rose to power. The party’s central tenant was a fierce stance against corruption.
Having won zero seats in its first election in 2008, it won a majority of 115 seats in the July 2018 election. Khan’s victory was met by both celebration from his supporters and protests from critics, claiming that the powerful military had facilitated his rise to power—and that he had had a hand in the former prime minister’s ouster.
Khan’s administration has been distinct in that he does not come from the political elite and draws from a wider and younger range of supporters, but he has remained conspicuously slow to condemn militant groups and remains a staunch supporter of Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws, which many condemn as discriminatory toward the country’s religious minorities.
Asia Bibi and blasphemy laws
The most notorious court case of the last decade—and perhaps the most notorious case in the country’s history—centers around these blasphemy laws, which call for life imprisonment or execution of those found guilty of speaking against Islam or the Prophet Muhammad.
In 2010, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman living in a village southeast of Lahore, was accused of blasphemy. First attacked by a mob and beaten in full view of the police, Asia was later arrested and sentenced to death.
She would remain on death row for nine years until her acquittal, with her case being a major rallying point for supporters of the blasphemy laws—so much so that two politicians who publicly supported her were assassinated, and her acquittal in 2018 was met with violent protests spearheaded by the TLP, a conservative religious party.
While Khan’s government initially agreed to a review of the acquittal, they eventually cracked down on the TLP and arranged for Asia’s relocation to Canada.
Pakistan’s “War on Terror”
The struggle between the Pakistani central government and powerful religious factions has long been a source of conflict, especially in the country’s mountainous border zone with Afghanistan.
Frequent terror attacks have claimed the lives of over 60,000 people over the course of the last 20 years, and terror-related activities have resulted in military interventions by the US, including the 2011 operation that led to the death of Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.
In 2014, seven Pakistani Taliban fighters carried out a terror attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, leaving 141 students and staff dead. This massacre was seen as a wake-up call in the country’s at times less-than-successful efforts to combat terror. In response, the government put forth a 20-point National Action Plan to combat militant groups and reinstated the death penalty.
Progressive human rights legislation
A number of recent, somewhat more hopeful events, have signaled an ongoing trend of reform within the country. In May of 2018 Pakistan passed legislation protecting the right of transgender citizens to self-identify in an attempt to curb the economic and social discrimination the community faces. An estimated 500,000 people identify as transgender in the country, and many are forced into begging, dancing, or sex work in order to survive.
Loosening of visa restrictions
While India-Pakistan relations remain strained, especially in light of recent tensions in Kashmir, the countries recently agreed to open a peace corridor to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Northern Pakistan, one of the holiest sites of Sikhism and the reputed home of the religion’s founder, Guru Nanak. An estimated 5,000 devotees from India will be able to use the corridor visa-free on a daily basis.
In April 2019, the Pakistani government implemented a new visa law that grants visa on arrival to 48 countries, including Brazil, Germany, and Russia. This new measure will allow visitors from these countries to stay three months without further documentation, and could help boost Pakistan’s tourism industry.
A number of countries playing a high-profile role in Pakistani foreign policy, most notably the US, UK, and Afghanistan, are conspicuously absent from this list.
While smaller steps point the way toward a brighter future for the Pakistani state, economic woes in the form of debt and continued tensions with neighboring India ensure that the path forward for Pakistan in the next decade will not be without its share of roadblocks.