Originally Published 2013-03-11 00:00:00 Published on Mar 11, 2013
It may not have been pretty, but the finish-line is within sight for the Zardari-led coalition government in Pakistan. And the first democratic transfer of power is a significant milestone in the growth of democracy in the country.
Pakistan: Anxiously waiting for its first democratic transfer of power
The fast-approaching March 16 deadline for the dissolution of the Zardari-led government ahead of scheduled May elections is an occasion worthy of note and reflection. At the beginning of his term, few, if any, gave the President’s fragile coalition much of a chance of completing its five-year mandate. Such an accomplishment has, after all, never come to pass in Pakistan’s 65 years, and there was little to suggest five years ago that this government had the capacity to be the first. Civilian authorities had a thin line to walk, with the PPP-led coalition facing threats not only from the ever-looming military (which, while perhaps not in condition to take power directly, could very well have engineered defections to topple the coalition government and install one more to its liking, as it did throughout the 90’s), but also from an increasingly-assertive judiciary, who went so far as to effectively sack former Prime Minister Gillani on contempt of court charges in April, 2012. Yet, now that the most recent attempts to interrupt the democratic transfer of power, in the forms of Tahir Qadri’s "Long March" and subsequent short-lived court case, have been decidedly squelched, the stage appears to be set. Negotiations for an interim government are entering their final stages, and virtually all the major stakeholders have voiced their commitment to the electoral process, including - most importantly - Army chief Ashfaq Kayani, whose most recent statement in favour of constitutional supremacy and a peaceful transfer of power between civilian authorities garnered significant attention. It may not have been pretty, but the finish-line is within sight. This is, no doubt, a milestone for Pakistan - one worthy of a moment’s pause to take note of the accomplishment and reflect upon the importance of the precedent that has been set. There are few within Pakistan, and even fewer outside of it, who doubt the importance of strengthening civilian institutions to the country’s future stability. If all goes well, the upcoming elections could indeed be a significant boost to the notion of civilian supremacy, the strength of which will grow with future civilian transitions of power, for which this election can serve as a template. Unfortunately, Pakistan can spare little more than a moment for self-congratulatory pause, however deserved. The future governing coalition, whatever its make-up, will have its hands full, to say the least. The following are among the country’s most significant challenges. Economic stagnation Though often overshadowed by the menace of extremism (with which it is intricately connected), confronting Pakistan’s struggling economy will be a top priority for the future government. After a decade of relative growth in the 1990s, Pakistan’s economy has taken a backward slide throughout the 2000s - the result of poor management, growing security threats and a crippling energy shortage. The latter two factors were put on dramatic display in recent weeks, with a rash of bombings on minority Shia targets in Quetta and Karachi and a rare country-wide blackout on 24 February. The poor performance of the economy will most certainly require a new round of IMF loans to offset Pakistan’s ballooning debt (a 7-7.5% budget deficit is projected for this year, on top of a 62.6% debt-to-GDP ratio, plummeting rupee, and shrinking reserves). After the most recent round of IMF loans ended in a stoppage of payment in 2010 as a result of the government’s inability to expand the country’s dismally low tax collection ratio (estimated to be about 10% of GDP, amongst the lowest in the world, excluding oil-producing states), international authorities will likely insist on front-loading reforms as a precondition to any loans being granted. Confronting the need to increase tax revenues and clamp down on evasion and political favouritism will be a huge challenge for the next coalition government, but it is vital for the long-term fiscal viability of the state, IMF-mandated reforms aside. Pakistan faces a steep uphill battle if it is to grow its economy at a rate commensurate with its prominent youth bulge (approximately 60% are under the age of 29) and avoid the potentially disastrous effects that a further swelling in the ranks of unemployed youth would bring. Among the most important steps the new government must take in promoting economic growth is to invest significantly in infrastructure improvements and address its nagging energy shortage, the effects of which continue to stifle investment prospects and drain efficiency. Unfortunately, resolving the crisis with internal resources is not feasible in the near future. There are, however, some steps a new government can take to ensure a more secure energy future, and thus begin to lay the groundwork for an economic revival. Energy crisis In the short term, many analysts have argued that phasing out some of the present enormously costly fuel subsidies would be a politically challenging, but ultimately beneficial step forward. Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, for instance, has pointed out that the Untargeted Tariff Differential Subsidy is presently costing the government 2.5% of GDP per year, while primarily benefiting wealthy segments of society and doing little in the way of improving the lives of the poor - as many as 30% of Pakistanis don’t have access to the power grid in the first place. Reforming the tariff structure, while cracking down on non-payment of bills (another rampant problem), would have the dual benefit of increasing revenue while encouraging the conservation of precious energy resources. Pakistan’s long-term strategy for resolving its interlinked energy and economic crises, though often pursued haphazardly, is to leverage is geographic position between the energy-rich Central Asian States and import-dependant South Asia to act as a transit point for a long-envisioned gas pipeline network. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Pipeline, which has strong US support, would be an enormous boon to the country’s energy needs (providing a projected 12.5 billion cubic metres per year), as well as a significant revenue booster through transit fees paid primarily by India. The feasibility of such a massive project is still very much up in the air, however, and much depends on the security situation in Afghanistan following the ISAF withdrawal - not to mention within Pakistan itself. Negotiations over the aforementioned transit fees are also ongoing - the success of which will be dependent on a continued warming of relations with India, another goal worthy of the succeeding government’s attention, to be discussed further below. In the absence of a clear path forward on TAPI, Pakistan has recently turned to Iran as a means to relieve some of the pressure from its energy crunch. Long-delayed negotiations over an Iran-Pakistan pipeline were kick-started by Zardari early this year despite objections from the US, who assured the Pakistanis that such a deal was "not in their interests." American pressure aside, ground-breaking on the Pakistani portion of the pipeline (one third of which will be funded by Iran) is scheduled to begin 11 March, with officials pressing for its completion by the end of 2014. While the timing of such a deal is no doubt political from Zaradri’s end (he has been loudly applauded in the Pakistani media for addressing the energy crisis and standing up to America), the necessity of securing alternative sources of energy for Pakistan is very real indeed, particularly if TAPI continues to look unlikely. Should the Iran-Pakistan pipeline go forward as scheduled, the US and Pakistan will have some delicate negotiating ahead of them. Security Pakistan’s internal security situation continues to deteriorate, posing a particularly deadly risk to minority communities throughout the country, as evidenced by two massive bombings of Shia communities in Quetta on 10 January and 16 February, and one in Karachi on 3 March. In response, the leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the Sunni militant outfit claiming responsibility for the attacks, Malik Ishaq, has been detained by Pakistani authorities. Given a "lack of evidence" against him, however, it is unlikely he will remain in custody for an extended period of time. In the meantime, an All Parties Conference held on 28 February and sponsored by Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl party chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, has unanimously endorsed the inclusion of Pakistani Taliban (TTP) elements in a Grand Tribal Jirga for the purposes of pursuing a peace agreement with the insurgent group. TTP spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, has expressed support for the proposal, which does not require the group to lay down arms as a precondition for dialogue. Critics argue, however, that there is little reason to expect the Taliban to cede ground on vital issues, such as recognising the supremacy of the Pakistani civilian authorities. If this is the case, there may be little to talk about. The military, notably, has been markedly unenthusiastic. Despite a marked change in tone by Army chief Kayani, announcing a shift in army doctrine recognising the lack of internal stability as the primary existential threat facing the country, there no doubt remain elements of Pakistan’s security forces who continue to view some militant outfits as a strategic asset for the State. This applies not only to Pakistani interests in Afghanistan, where intelligence agencies have long viewed networks of former Mujahideen fighters (including the Haqqani Network and the Quetta Shura) as a balance to Indian influence in the country - a policy dating back to the 1979 Soviet Invasion - but also to the Military’s goals in Kashmir, where groups like LeJ and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have consistently launched attacks on Indian targets, as well as in Baluchistan, where Sunni extremist networks have served the purpose of combating an ongoing separatist movement. Reducing the influence of these one-time "assets" will be a long and difficult process, but there appears to be a growing consensus, even within some military circles (the result of ever-more-bold attacks on military targets by the TTP) that the country has little choice. The challenges for doing so are numerous, and include improving ties and building trust with rival India to remove some of the impetus for the harbouring of such groups, using whatever leverage Pakistan possesses in ensuring lasting Taliban integration with the Afghan government to ensure stability there, and granting concessions in the form of autonomy and more generous development initiatives to Baluchistan, which lags behind the rest of Pakistan in virtually every measurable development indicator, despite its wealth in natural resources. Developments in Afghanistan and India are closely linked, and the future government (not to mention the military) must continue to back meaningful dialogue and trust-building with Delhi if it is to refashion itself as a productive contributor to Afghan stability. Pakistan’s future as a transit point for oil and gas shipments clearly depends on its regional integration and better relations with its neighbours. Building trust with India and moving away from the "existential threat" paradigm can also build a foundation for cooperation between the two states in jointly promoting stability in Afghanistan. As it stands, continued support for Taliban elements by Pakistan is rooted in the perceived strategic imperative of reducing Indian influence in Kabul (India has strong ties with many Tajik and Uzbek leaders that made up the former Northern Alliance, as well as with the Karzai regime, and unfriendly Afghan governments have presented a security concern in the past). As long as the two countries continue to work against each other in Afghanistan, the path to long-term stability is difficult to see. A renewed civil war and the influx of refugees it would undoubtedly bring, however, is diametrically opposed to Pakistan’s interests in regaining stability within its own borders. Even given success on these counts - each a truly mammoth undertaking on its own - the challenge of disarming, demobilising, and reintegrating former militant forces raised on radical Islam will remain. There is a grave fear that as international forces exit Afghanistan, many jihadists currently fighting there will turn their eyes toward Pakistan in the manner of the TTP. If the spectre of militancy is to be defeated in the long term, future authorities must, in addition to growing the economy and expanding opportunities for normal Pakistanis to better their lives, make concerted efforts to change a political and social climate all-too-often centred on exclusionary ethno-religious rhetoric. This is, without a doubt, Pakistan’s greatest challenge. Eye on the prize The first democratic transfer of power is a significant milestone in the growth of any democracy - one that ought to be recognised for what it is: an achievement, no matter how imperfect. For Pakistan’s next government, however, there will be little time to reflect on the recent past. While its democratic institutions may be strengthening, they are still very much in their infancy, and the challenges before them are enormous - this list is, in fact, only the beginning. The next five years will almost certainly not see each of them put to rest. Pakistan’s next government can, however, begin to pilot the country in the right direction and build momentum in favour of desperately needed reforms. It is unrealistic to expect democracy, stability, and prosperity overnight. It is foolish, however, to be delayed further by the magnanimity of the task. It will, after all, only grow bigger with time. (The writer is a research intern and Boren Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)
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