Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Pakistan’s shaky political future

Early election results in Pakistan indicate ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in certain grasp of victory with a strong majority. Pakistan’s elections were bloody and somewhat chaotic, but they took place with a very high turnout of voters dodging the suicide bombings and gun attacks on polling stations to participate.

Pakistan should be proud of these elections. The country’s politics has ebbed and flowed over the years and only grudgingly set the stage for an attempt at democracy. Significant obstacles remain however, as Pakistan’s first democratic transition since partition from India in 1947 occurs during the worst crisis for the embattled country since the secession of East Pakistan and the brutal jihadist insurgency which followed.

Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif addresses
a news conference March 7 - (K.M. Chaudary/AP)
The South Asian country is in an incredibly undesirable position. Its social patchwork is riven with religious conflict and cultural upheavals, its eastern neighbour India in contrast grows rapidly into a heavy regional power, its military is fidgety and not entirely side-lined from politics, and Pakistan’s economy and infrastructure is decaying disturbingly fast. On top of this, the great bulk of NATO forces will soon depart the region leaving behind a gasping power vacuum with Pakistan essentially left holding the broom to clean up.  

Pakistan’s new government will face a diabolical next five years in power, if it can make it that far. Outgoing Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari, husband to the slaughtered Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, completed his term in one piece. But among the popular discontent with the economy, the hugely unpopular involvement in the “War on Terror”, corruption, power blackouts, and religiously-motivated violence his cabinet barely made it to the finish line.

Two leviathan issues will dominate the incoming leadership’s agenda: security and the economy. Neither will be simple to solve, and both will be exacerbated with the departure of NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014. The victorious Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, with its pro-business stance, can be expected to have some success in revitalising the economy and plans to get started quickly in preparation for the country’s budget in June.

Pakistan has been playing the long game in Afghanistan. The decade-long war was tough for NATO planners, and it will be difficult to call it a successful campaign when it concludes in 2014. Pakistan appeared at times ambivalent to NATO goals in Afghanistan, at times enthusiastic, and at times duplicitous. But Islamabad and their powerful intelligence apparatus always understood Pakistan would eventually be left holding the bag once the international forces finally got tired of fighting the war.

Yet as the fighting spilled over into Northern Pakistan and Taliban fighters began targeting Pakistani populations, Islamabad’s focus has been all but consumed in holding back the tide of violence at the expense of other necessary forms of statecraft.

This security break-down, endemic corruption, insecurity, and basic political ineptitude has coagulated the country’s economic woes. Simple infrastructure is near collapse with the power and energy sectors in a state of serious neglect, touching on abandonment. As a result, economic output is dangerously minimal resulting in high unemployment rates taking the country close to bankruptcy.

Such poor economic administration fuelled support for the anti-traditional political party headed by famed cricketer Imran Khan. His party received a surge of support in the final election hours but gained only enough votes to secure governorship of the restive province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and is now Prime Minister Sharif’s main political rival.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif leveraged the traditional patronage networks to buy votes and support for his campaign. Patronage networks controlling much of Pakistan’s wealth still preserve much of their power because Mr Sharif’s connections with conservative, moneyed elites remain very robust. So despite Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s previous dismal economic record while in power previously, he can be assured of support from powerful Pakistanis.
Supporters of Pakistani politician and former cricketer Imran Khan
wave party flags - AAMIR QURESHI AFP/Getty Images

An indication of what the next five years might bring for Pakistan is embedded in the victorious party’s name. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz openly courted extremist support during his campaign, leaning on the popular anti-American undercurrent in Pakistani society. Whether Mr Sharif is equally anti-American is untested, but his rhetoric warns of belligerency ahead.

If anti-American sentiment increases in Pakistan in response to an expanding U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) campaign in the North, US-Pakistan relations could sour further. Their relationship is already frosty, but as Taliban-NATO negotiations stall, Pakistan’s influence over some extremist elements in the region will need to be taken into account by NATO commanders.

This will be all the more complex following Pakistan’s elections. Worryingly, the political spectrum is now split between two right-of-centre parties. And Pakistan’s religious freedom index is already abysmally low according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released in April 2013. Mr Sharif’s ruling party is highly conservative, and siding with religious extremists could lead to greater sectarian violence in the future.

Ultimately, any election in Pakistan delivering power from one democratically elected government to another is a positive step in the right direction. But Pakistan’s unique breed of democracy lacks adequate barriers to fully prevent a militant religious majority from oppressing minorities.

Pakistan’s new government will have to deal with a quickly evolving internal and external security nightmare, which is sapping the government’s already feeble fiscal supplies. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will only achieve limited success in building up Pakistan’s economy as the security situation allows. But although it will be difficult, the pseudo-state of Pakistan desperately needs a better five years than it experienced in the previous election cycle.

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