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One small step for democracy, one giant leap for Pakistan?

Written by Maryam Mohsin


Pakistan has emerged on the other side of its first attempt to transfer power from one civilian government to another through the ballot box (relatively) successfully. The electoral process was always bound to be harder than it sounded: kidnappings, bombings, terrorism, violence, women banned from voting, and fraud from even the most implausible of rogues - GEO news looped a video of a sweet-looking old lady, who looked very similar to my grandma (FYI - it wasn’t my grandma), stuffing a ballot box with a fist full of phoney votes, finger pressed to lips.

Nawaz Sharif and his party PML-N (which has been in power twice before, in 1990 and again in 1997) look set to take the majority of votes. Seemingly forgiven for accusations of corruption and tax evasion during his previous administration, Sharif has been given a pat on the back for the promising infrastructural, economic and social welfare developments achieved in prosperous Punjab. Many will be hoping he has learnt from his previous mistakes in government and will replicate Punjab’s success stories throughout the country. Imran Khan’s Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) party, the newest kid on the block, is now the second largest national party in government and could play an important role in ensuring PML-N feels ‘the presence of a true opposition’. However this can only happen if Khan bites the bullet and is prepared to negotiate with the useless and thankfully ousted, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), as well as the Muttahida Quami Movement, (MQM), which Khan has described as a ‘terrorist party’.

Despite the messy and violent process, as well as the voting irregularities (to put it mildly – PTI are currently pushing for an enquiry into the accusations of vote rigging), the results have largely been accepted, and few would disagree that Pakistan is now on a road towards… well, let’s face it, even the most powerful of magic 8 balls wouldn’t be able to predict what the future holds for Pakistan. What we do know is that, if PML-N is to have any hope of delivering the objectives set out in their manifesto, they will need to address the ‘how’, which as of yet remains missing from their proposals. The electorate will be looking for delivery on electoral promises. The hope is that the newly elected government will be held accountable by Pakistan’s ever-prevalent media machine, the judiciary (which has often demonstrated its independence), and opposition parties with scores to settle.

But the challenges that the new government faces are substantive – even if they have been largely neglected in party pronouncements. Pakistan suffers from endemic poverty, a chronically weak economy, crippling energy crisis, huge debt, annual floods, terrorism, on-going militant and sectarian turf-war (highlighted by the desperate attempts made by thugs to suppress voting in Karachi), pervasive corruption, water shortages, not to mention the Siachen and Kashmir issue.

To avoid turning this blog into a research report, I’ll focus on a few of them.

1.   The army: back-seat drivers?

Let’s give Pakistan’s army a quick health check. Pakistan is a country that has been ruled by the military for half of its existence and has seen 3 military coups, one of which overthrew Sharif’s previous administration in 1999. The army has largely taken a back seat during this election. However the fact remains that it is Pakistan's generals who set foreign and security policy. Better relations with India have been set as a high priority by Sharif, but past efforts to negotiate peace with India have always been actively sabotaged by the army. The need to rescue Pakistan’s flagging economy has made the army more amenable to the idea, but Sharif will need to tread with caution to secure their backing. In addition, the army will be playing a key role in ensuring the peaceful withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in the coming year, as well as any negotiations that take place between America, Karzai and Taliban leaders.

2.   Economy and infrastructure

Pakistan’s growth rate has slowed to a snail’s pace and currently stands at around 3%, the same as it was 5 years ago. Inflation, as to be expected thanks to the level of internal borrowing, is spiralling. With a growing work-age population, unemployment is hitting crisis point - a travesty considering the natural resources available, the opportunity that large-scale manufacturing offers, and the potential for boosting agricultural productivity. A factor exacerbating the situation has been the country’s energy crisis, which has hindered large-scale manufacturing.

Sharif has pledged to focus on the economy, promising to be pro-business and pro-investment, and vowing to improve infrastructure to end, among other things, the 18-hour blackouts that much of the country continues to face. However, addressing these issues will first require an effective system of taxation, an area where Pakistan woefully falls short. Sharif will be hoping to secure the $6-$9 billion loan needed from the IMF to avoid defaulting on debt repayments, and key to any hope in securing this loan will be a formal commitment to roll out tax reforms and prove Pakistan is ready to take the necessary steps towards increasing the country’s tax revenue. Informally, the government will also need to ‘play ball’ with US foreign policy objectives, particularly facilitating US-NATO forces’ exit from Afghanistan.

3.   Social development

Though a middle-income country, over one-third of Pakistan’s population still lives on roughly 30p a day, and it has remarkably poor human development indicators.

PML-N have pledged to increase GDP expenditure on health to 2%, which would be an improvement but still falls considerably short of the 6% recommended by the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA). The party is also planning to introduce a Medical Insurance Card aimed at providing every family with basic health care at a subsidised rate; and they have pledged to increase spending on education to 4%. All this sounds promising in principle. However, how they are going to ensure that money invested in both sectors achieves the results envisioned, and doesn’t end up wasted as a result of corruption and inefficiency, has yet to be explained.

4.   Sectarian and inter-faith violence

Importantly, the violence that took place in Baluchistan and Karachi during the election serves as a stark reminder that so far no progress has been made to crack down on widespread sectarian and inter-faith violence. It’s estimated that up to 4,000 people have died in clashes between Sunni-Shia factions, and there are numerous accounts of continued enforced disappearances and killings. It’s also important to note that violent attacks have by no means been limited towards Sunnis and Shias. Largely perceived as being soft in their approach to militant Islamist organisations, favouring dialogue rather than crack down, it is unclear what steps PML-N will take to tackle this issue. More will need to be done to ensure religious tolerance and freedom for Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, and all other religious minorities in the country.

The hope is that Sharif doesn’t repeat the shortcomings of previous governments, including his own, and actually delivers on electoral promises. The worry is the ‘how’ behind PML-N’s promises. The party largely failed to address the challenges that have been outlined during its previous stints in power. Yet their policies look incredibly similar to those made years ago. In a rapidly changing economic, social and political landscape, that is simply not good enough. With these elections, Pakistan has taken an important step towards democracy, but to transform the country in more fundamental ways will require more than (recycled) electoral promises. What Pakistan needs is a bold plan of action, and whether Sharif and his party can deliver on it remains the ultimate question.