Pakistan’s impending national and provincial elections in May 2013 are arguably its most important ever. For the first time a democratically-elected government has been able to complete its term to hand over power to a similar dispensation.

More importantly, the quantum of challenges Pakistan faces, both internal and external, have expanded exponentially, while the capacity of its legislators, administrative machinery and physical infrastructure has substantially eroded. This continuing decline, accelerated by three periods of military rule - ironically, projecting the need for improved governance as justification for each takeover - more ironically, yet has persisted in the intervening periods of democratic government, including these past five years.

The main reason has been lack of vision in the leadership of the day, military or civilian, and the weakening of the iron frame civil service bequeathed by the British to administer and impose law and order effectively. Another reason is population growth far beyond state resources and a crumbling infrastructure.

Also, central to this state of affairs are external circumstances. Constant pressure from a larger India to keep Pakistan off balance until it falls in line, and the war in Afghanistan with its consequences, are largely beyond Pakistan’s control, despite its best efforts to manage its relations with India, the USA and Afghanistan.

The new government whatever its composition will immediately be faced with these major challenges. Internally, accessing energy supplies and improving power generation and distribution will be the drivers for an economy suffering from energy shortages. Tackling extremism and terrorism risen in response to Afghanistan’s occupation and likely to increase with Nato’s 2014 exit will be another priority. Expanding the economy to provide minimum health and welfare care and maximum educational opportunity will determine whether Pakistanis are equipped or otherwise to function in a globalised economy.

Some internal challenges and options, as, for instance, gas pipelines from Iran and from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan, impact Pakistan’s foreign relations, particularly with the USA, Afghanistan and India. With India it is at least clear which category to place it in: not friendly and potentially hostile. Hence, where Pakistan stands and where India is coming from, articulation of policy and response to Indian moves are clear.

With America such clarity is lacking. In many important respects, the US is a friend and ally and the objective should be to build on that consistent with national interest. In other dimensions of interaction, there prevails a grey, occasionally adversarial relationship. After 9/11, the USA perceived Pakistan through the major prism of its concerns with counterterrorism and the Afghan war, and the auxiliary prism of its deepening and expanding strategic relationship with India - an important fulcrum and part of its pivot to contain China.

How to enhance its relevance to the USA will be a major priority for the next government, particularly as the long occupation of Afghanistan winds down. While the American “Pakistan must do more” mantra has modulated this last year, there is much to make up. For instance, the bilateral strategic dialogue with the USA needs upgrading. Though the common Pak or US objective of fostering peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan shall remain central, the challenge for Pakistan is to find other avenues of engagement.

As for the elections, several aspects stand out. First, it is so far a remarkably open race due partly to the new third force, Imran Khan’s PTI. There is no indication as to which party will prevail. All that can be said is that the ruling PPP is entering the hustings without any key leader so far heading its campaign. Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N seems ascendant in Punjab, the largest province, having controlled it for the past five years, but if the voter turnout goes significantly beyond the usual 40-46 percent, Imran’s party with his impressive youth support may become a force to reckon with.

Secondly, for the first time candidates are not getting free passes. Electoral reforms and public awareness, sparked off by the quixotic Dr Tahirul Qadri and a vibrant media and supported by the judiciary, have led to long-awaited and sustained questioning of tax records, educational eligibility and other qualifications. Not enough, perhaps, but it is a start given that democratic traditions are built up by accretion, by trial and error, not overnight.

Thirdly, significantly the elections are an inclusive process bringing in all parties, including nationalist ones from Balochistan and Sindh, sectarian groups and even banned organisations canvassing directly or indirectly.

Fourthly, there is a strong prospect of this resulting in a hung Parliament, requiring a coalition government even broader than in the last five years. The downside would be the need to accommodate diverse parties and interests, the compromises required, resulting in weaker governance and delivery when the opposite is required.

Fifthly, while Musharraf has returned, commando-like, displaying personal courage and against general expectation, his overall record in office: unquestioning acquiescence to American demands following 9/11, mishandling of the judiciary, inability to tackle the energy crisis; and unwillingness to enforce law and order, have left him without a viable constituency, vulnerable to extremist forces and facing charges, including high treason. He is likely to be a footnote in the elections.

Sixthly , whatever the result, there will be unfortunately no new faces apart from Imran himself, who has been well known for quite some time but not in this electoral context. But this is not exclusive to Pakistan. In India, the Congress Party’s hold has weakened showcasing the blatantly sectarian Modi. In the Western world, no statesperson stands out since Thatcher and Reagan. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have thrown the entire region into an arc of instability. This dramatic backdrop to the elections makes it imperative that the outcome enables Pakistan to better address the internal and external challenges it faces. The people of Pakistan deserve no less.

The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat.

Email: ambassador.tariqosmanhyder@gmail.com