ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's government passed a major milestone Saturday, with the parliament becoming the first democratically chosen body to finish its term in a country that has faced three military coups and persistent political turmoil.
But after years of militant attacks, worsening electricity blackouts and faltering economic growth, the political party that took office five years ago on a wave of sympathy following the assassination of iconic leader Benazir Bhutto will likely find it more difficult this time to win voters to its side.
Underscoring divisions, politicians failed to reach agreement on a caretaker government in time for the final session of parliament before new elections are held. The country's constitution calls for a vote within 60 days, although no date has yet been set.
Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, who maintains his position in the meantime, hailed the peaceful transition as a success for his Pakistan People's Party,
"We have strengthened the foundations of democracy to such an extent that no one will be able to harm democracy in future," Ashraf said during a nearly hourlong televised address to the nation.
Ashraf portrayed the problems in the country as something inherited from the previous regime of ousted leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
One of the ruling party's main achievements has been its sheer survival — no small feat in a country that has experienced three successful coups and many more unsuccessful ones.
President Asif Ali Zardari has shown a remarkable ability to hold together a warring coalition government whose members threaten to quit every few months or so. He's also managed a balance between the need for U.S. assistance amid a deteriorating relationship between the two countries and rising anti-American sentiment.
Washington needs Pakistan's help fighting al-Qaida and stabilizing neighboring Afghanistan, but a series of recent scandals have severely damaged ties. CIA contractor Raymond Davis shot and killed two Pakistani men in Lahore, the U.S. unilaterally killed Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad and American forces accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops along the Afghan border.
"That the government has survived five years, despite rumors every three months that the government is going, should also be viewed as a kind of achievement," independent political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said.
Zardari and the ruling party must share some of the credit. The army, traditionally eager to step in when they perceive Pakistan to be in crisis, has shown a reticence under Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to involve itself at least outwardly in politics.
The main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-N led by Nawaz Sharif, has bypassed numerous opportunities to make life difficult for the PPP. Sharif has just as much invested in strengthening the civilian government as the PPP does, and is no friend of the army.
Sharif's party and one led by former Pakistani cricket star Imran Khan will present the greatest challenge to the PPP in the coming election.
The government's most high-profile accomplishments in the past five years have involved changing the power structure, rather than dealing with basic problems facing ordinary Pakistanis.
Through a constitutional amendment passed in 2010 under pressure from the opposition, Zardari followed through on promises to strip the presidency of many of the powers it gained under Musharraf.
The amendment prevents the president from unilaterally dissolving parliament and gives the prime minister a major role in appointing the country's armed services chiefs. The amendment also transfers considerable powers from the central government to the provinces.
But it's questionable whether these moves will deliver many votes. It's mostly the economy that will be on voters' minds.
"The economy has never been on the radar of the government. This was the most neglected area," said Ashfaque Hassan Khan, dean of the National University of Sciences and Technology's Business School. He criticized the revolving door of ministers and officials in key economy-related government bodies.
Many in the government argue that the economy hasn't fared that poorly considering the catastrophic flooding of 2010, security problems that scare off foreign investors and the global economic downturn.
But critics contend the government has failed to address major issues such as restructuring state-owned companies like the national airline, PIA.
And then there are the blackouts.
Pakistanis suffer from rolling blackouts — euphemistically referred to as load shedding — that can last as long as 18 hours a day in the summer. In the winter, natural gas supplies are intermittent at best.
Under the PPP, the government has tried to address the energy crisis by employing so-called rental power projects under which the government imports power stations and links them to the national grid. But the projects have been unable to generate much electricity, and critics say they were just an opportunity for graft.
The PPP insists it is tackling the energy problems. Zardari went to Iran on Monday for a high-profile ground-breaking ceremony on a pipeline intended to bring natural gas from Iran — despite American objections.
One area where the PPP government has invested a lot of time and effort is the rural sector and helping the poor. Welfare programs like the Benazir Income Support Program have handed out small amounts of cash to the country's most impoverished people and given small loans to businesses.
The government has also tried to help rural communities by boosting the price of certain agricultural commodities, although that has contributed to price hikes in urban areas.
The PPP may pay a price for ongoing terror attacks despite five years of military operations against the Pakistani Taliban and likeminded groups in the lawless tribal areas near the Afghan border.
Just this year, more than 250 people have been killed in three bombings targeting members of the minority Shiite Muslim sect. Security in Karachi, the country's largest city and economic heart, continues to unravel as political, ethnic and religious wars escalate.
The PPP rose to power after the Dec. 27, 2007 assassination of Bhutto during a rally in Rawalpindi where she railed against terrorism. Her widower, Zardari, vowed to continue that legacy when he took over, but analysts say the government has failed to follow through on that promise.
"I don't think there has been any success in curbing militancy," said Zahid Hussain, whose books record the rise of militancy in Pakistan. "The government has failed to come out with a clear counterterrorism policy."
Pakistani troops have been engaged in near-constant fighting against militants in the country's northwest near the Afghan border since 2009. But in areas like the Swat Valley, where the military drove out the Taliban, the civilian administration has been unable to take over from the military.
At the same time, Pakistan's relationship with its longtime but wary ally, the United States, has gone through some extremely rocky periods.
Zardari and the PPP have always struggled with a domestic perception that they are American stooges — an unpopular position in a country where anti-American sentiment is widespread. The view from Washington, though, has been that Pakistan is not doing enough to combat militancy within its borders.
In response to the U.S. airstrikes that accidentally killed the 24 soldiers in November 2011, the Pakistanis cut off the NATO supply lines for seven months until the U.S. apologized. Relations have slowly improved since then, but politicians remain wary of being seen as too close to Washington as elections loom.
Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed contributed to this report.
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