Canberra, 23 May 2013
For some time during the election campaign in Pakistan, there was an audible sway of hope and vitality—the slogan of hope and change. However, it was drowned; as quickly as its effervescence had tried to assert itself; in the sweeping wave of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) at the elections. Even though the PML-N achieved a clear majority the elections have only brought about a change of government and not altered the system, the result is a verdict in favour of maintaining a status quo—the existing political system has won the day. This should not come as a surprise to anyone.
The leader of the Justice Party (officially the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI)), the erstwhile cricketer Imran Khan had campaigned vociferously against feudal ‘biradari’ politics; the politics of vote banks delivered by aristocratic land owners with victory predicated on the historic pedigree of candidates. This is the area in which the followers of the PTI believed that change would take place. Being a relatively new party and supported by the educated younger generation, the PTI could not fathom the limit of change that a society which is not ready for radical alteration to its traditional façade would permit to be undertaken. The current election was an indirect clash between young urbanites and the religious rural voters. The results show very clearly that the pulse of the nation is not directly associated with the impotent rage felt by the urban, educated middle class. Liberal beliefs do not normally make inroads into societies that are traditionally non-individualistic and community-based, where group identity is still an important factor in an individual’s development. Further, the fledgling PTI failed to appreciate or achieve the fine balance required between the promise of good governance and smart political manoeuvring. The result was that the PML-N was able to harness the existing status quo to obtain a winning lead.
The Elections
PML-N and Mian Nawaz Sharif (63) were favoured to win, but the convincing margin of victory was not predicted even by the most biased PML supporter. The margin of victory is such that the PML does not have to form a coalition with either of the other major parties—the PTI or the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) led by the current President Asif Ali Zardari. It could collaborate with smaller regional parties and the few independents to form government. Such an arrangement will make it easier for the government to function, since there will be lesser pressure in the long term to accommodate the demands of the minor coalition partners.
This election saw the worst violence in the country’s electoral history as well as the highest voter turnout on Election Day (60% of eligible voters exercised their franchise as compared to 43% in the previous election). The toll of violence was high—in four weeks prior to the elections 150 people were killed and over 400 injured, mainly through attacks carried out by the Pakistani Taliban; the country’s top prosecutor was gunned down on 3 May in Islamabad in broad daylight; and on Election Day 38 people were killed and over 150 wounded. The Pakistani Taliban had declared that elections were un-Islamic and vowed to force the Government to cancel the elections through violent intimidation. The high voter turnout despite the violence is an indication that the general population is not in agreement with the Taliban and also that they are not going to be cowed down by threat and violence.
Both the ruling PPP and PTI managed to garner about 30 seats each, which is very poor showing considering the pre-election rhetoric of both the parties. The PPP was obviously being punished by the voters for its abysmal performance in the current government—almost all ministers lost their seats. More important is the disappointing results for the PTI. The socio-cultural issues for their failure have already been discussed. The praise that the leader Imran Khan had bestowed on the Taliban in the early part of the campaign and derogatory statements that were made regarding minorities and women’s rights could have disillusionment a number of supporters. The election results were also indicative of a strong ethnic divide in the voting pattern and emphasises the importance of the central-state relationship. The PPP and the PML have been the two major parties in the country for a long time. The historic alignment of these two has always been with the PPP being left-leaning and the PML taking a right-of-centre stance. There was a sense of a pull in different directions maintaining a semblance of balance and equilibrium. The spectrum has now changed with a third party of equal importance emerging in the political firmament and also by the fact that now two of the three dominant parties are right-of-centre. Further, there is the open articulation of extreme Islamic ideas within the nation, and even in political discourse, in direct contrast and conflict to the secular and liberal values that have been espoused for the past 60 years. This is an uncomfortable situation. Since the beginning of his political career Nawaz Sharif has advocated Islamic ideals. In his first term as Prime Minister he introduced the Sharia Ordnance; in his second term he tried to amend the Constitution (15th Amendment) to entail the supremacy of the Quran and the Sunnah. He also has unstated alliances with religious militant elements and will favour a negotiated settlement and accommodation with the Islamic fundamentalists rather than take a confrontational approach.
Notwithstanding the election results—that should, in an ideal situation, fundamentally lead to a more stable and democratic government than what Pakistan has ever had before—the country is faced with growing religious and ethnic intolerance, multiple insurgencies that border on civil war and an imploding economy.
Onerous Tasks Ahead
Nawaz Sharif faces a number of extremely serious challenges to the very existence of Pakistan as a functioning sovereign entity. These challenges could be clubbed together under the broad headings of security, foreign policy and economy.
Security Challenges
The security challenges that Pakistan faces are predominantly internal, the critical one being the absolute necessity to contain the Taliban. The Taliban originated within the Pashtun clans in Afghanistan with the direct support of the Army; the Pakistani Taliban being essentially similar in nature. However, the Pakistani Taliban has evolved in terms of ideology, which now supports the quest for an international Caliphate with Pakistan as the core. Under these circumstances the first task that the incoming PML government has to undertake is to rebuild the bridges with the Army, which were burned in the wake of the 1999 coup that put an end to Nawaz Sharif’s second term as Prime Minister. This might be a bitter pill for the PML to swallow, but there is no other option available if they are to end the sectarian violence that is burning the country, and if they are to reign in the Taliban. Without the Army’s involvement this cannot be achieved. The Government and the Army have to function in unison, if any progress is to be made. Personal security of the citizenry is another issue that has to be addressed. The incoming Government will have to come to grips with the security situation quickly and will have to make difficult decisions regarding internal security, law and order and other strategic challenges such as the impending NATO withdrawal from neighbouring Afghanistan.
The election results indicate that the restive province of Khyber Pakthunkwa (KP) will now be ruled by the PTI. This province is the hotbed of Taliban activity and the Central Government has been unable to contain anti-state activities that emanate from this area. Imran Khan the PTI leader is seen as sympathetic to the Taliban and the United States fear that he will succumb to their demands rather than try to control them through overt measures. It is highly unlikely that a PTI Provincial Government will stand up to the Taliban in KP. Further, the PTI has made an election promise to stop US Drone strikes in the province. The Drone strikes have been instrumental in ensuring that the Taliban was restrained in the activities that they undertook from their hideouts in KP. An end to Drone strikes would permit them greater freedom of action in the absence of any other military operation that can be initiated as an alternative in the near term.
During the initial phase of the current Afghan conflict, the Afghan Taliban sought refuge in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan and mounted cross-border raids against NATO forces. Over a period of time, after the formation of the Pakistani Taliban, the reverse also became the case, leading to a number of clashes between Pakistan national forces and Afghan troops at the border. The impending withdrawal of NATO forces at the time of the impending Presidential elections in Afghanistan and the increasing ambition of the Pakistani Taliban will combine to escalate the tensions and cross-border incursions. The increased probability of intensified civil war in Afghanistan post-NATO withdrawal further adds to increasing the chances of Afghanistan-Pakistan border clashes. This will add to the difficulty in containing Taliban activities in Pakistan. The incoming government needs to develop and implement a new Afghanistan policy, if further deterioration of the current situation is to be curbed. On the positive side, the NATO withdrawal could let Pakistan facilitate a more meaningful dialogue between the Karzai Government and the Taliban, leveraging the anti-American sentiment prevalent in both the countries.   
Even if not as dire as the Taliban threat and the lawlessness of KP, there are other militant groups that are pursuing their own agendas in the country. The Baloch separatists have not given up their long-standing agitation for independence from Pakistan; and Karachi, the financial capital, is virtually in a state of civil war with a number of groups fighting for supremacy and control. There is also visible proof of minorities being targeted in violent actions that is reminiscent of ethnic cleansing. There are reports of Shias being gunned down by supporters and allies of the PML, who are unlikely to be brought to justice. In any case Nawaz Sharif has no history of standing up for the rights of minorities. The ill-treatment of minorities will continue to be a festering sore in the societal fabric and could, in extremis, lead to violent upheavals of a magnitude that the government will not be able to contain.
Foreign Policy
The challenge in terms of foreign policy is not so much how the relationship with the US can be managed at a reasonable level of acrimony, but the question of dealing with India. There is a built-in anti-India (and anti-US) feeling within the nation, fuelled by the Army and stocked by pseudo-nationalists. There are also religious extremist groups who declare that only the destruction of India as a polity would bring peace to their jihadi ferment. Within these constraints, there is a fixed limit to the exploitation of domestic opinion towards improving the relationship with India. Unfortunately fresh thinking on developing the relationship cannot be applied outside this rigid box. If at all any improvement takes place it will be slow to manifest and almost invisible. Other than for photo opportunities for the media of high level meetings of no substance, nothing much will change in a hurry. However, there is also a sentiment, which is the result of purely pragmatic calculation, that improving trade with India will have a positive effect on Pakistan’s flagging economy. On the other hand it is also felt that anti-Indian terrorism is unlikely to be curbed. This is a stark dichotomy. The Indian Prime Minster has made all the right statements after the election results became clear, but to follow it up with visible action in the absence of any visible steps by Pakistan to curb terrorist support is going to be difficult.
To give credit where it is due, Nawaz Sharif had attempted to progress the Indo-Pakistani peace process in his last tenure as PM, but was thwarted by an aggressive and intractable Army. In this term, he could fare better since the Army is currently in a weakened state. The Army is in no shape even to contemplate another coup—they suffer from a lack of credibility in international opinion and more importantly have a clear idea of the extreme problems within the country, which they do not want to assume the responsibility to solve. Therefore, the chance of being able to at least starting a dialogue with India is much higher this time around for Nawaz Sharif. This situation has to be viewed within the prism of the domestic sentiments in India and the fact that India is heading towards a general election in 2014. In both the nations domestic political imperatives will influence the way forward. No dramatic changes are likely to occur in this front.
Pakistan is on the verge of defaulting on the repayment of foreign debt and the economy is on the brink of collapse. The nation has only US $ 6 billion in reserves, which is only good for six weeks of imports. Nawaz Sharif will have to start renegotiation of the US $ 11.3 billion IMF loan that was stopped for non-compliance of stipulated conditions. His reputation as a liberal economist and his policies that support private industry would definitely assist in this negotiation. However, he also has to consider the necessity to deal with the US in an adroit manner—placating domestic restlessness regarding US Drone strikes into the country, while ensuring that the IMF loans are not held in abeyance by a recalcitrant US. Sharif is a strong proponent of privatisation and economic liberalisation. However, he has his work cut-out for him as the PM as there are a number of structural problems within the economy that must be carefully addressed—there is declining GDP growth; the nation is straddled with a huge budgetary deficit that is being funded through external financing; and spending on infrastructure, the life blood for growth, is reducing at an alarming rate. An economic magician is required to stem this tidal wave of economic woes in the near-term.
There is a crisis in the energy sector with a majority of cities and towns going for up to 16 hours per day without electricity. Natural gas is the dominant source of energy in Pakistan. It is dependent on imports for 80% of its oil needs and the rising international price of oil has led to a conspicuous shift to the consumption of natural gas, creating a very visible shortage in that area. Further, there is a lack of crude oil refining capability and lethargy in building the capacity and infrastructure for refining because of long-term under investment in the sector. The result is an almost insurmountable gap in the demand and supply equation. Hydro power development is lagging and nowhere near an optimised production state. The nation has considerable coal reserves but it has not been exploited, mainly due to technical incompetency. The entire energy sector suffers from inadequate transmission and distribution networks and inadequacy of regulatory tariffs to meet operational costs. At least for the near-term no solutions visible on the horizon; Pakistan seems to be on the verge of an energy-induced collapse.
The manufacturing sector is also facing a crisis. There is a shortage of skilled workers, developmental progress is hampered by poor or non-existent infrastructure, and endemic official corruption is out of control. On top of this list of woes, political instability, terrorist attacks and energy shortages have started to drive the last few nails into the coffin of industrial development. The resurrection of industrial capability and the manufacturing sector needs wide ranging reforms that will encroach on other areas of government that have different, and at times conflicting, entrenched interests. Introducing the urgently needed changes may not be that simple a matter. The progressive closing down of industry has also contributed to an already high level of unemployment, which has emerged as one of the critical socio-economic issues that needs to be addressed. Rapid population growth, poor levels of literacy, especially amongst the females, the inroads that fundamentalist religious practices have made into the society, and the lack of opportunity for a bulging youth population is a recipe for disaster—wherever it may occur! Pakistan has clearly trumpeted its arrival in this arena.
Pakistan faces enormous domestic and external challenges and needs a very strong and pragmatic leadership to pull it out of the morass. However, there are also strong and embedded vested interests who are opposed to resolving any of the issues in a practical manner. Governing the country is not going to be an easy task—the understatement of the year! Into this chasm steps Nawaz Sharif who is not without his own baggage, not the least of which is the frayed relationship with the all-powerful Army. He is also committed to Islamisation and the introduction of a more Sharia-based legal system, which would be at odds with the need to contain the Pakistani Taliban that is driving the nation into chaos. Compromise with this extremist faction will only make things worse and will stand in the way of stabilising the nation, the primary requirement for addressing other pressing challenges. Further, Pakistan’s Muslims are a highly pluralist mix of Sunni and Shia and also contain large communities of Ahmadi, Bahai and other denominations. Tensions between these disparate groups often erupt into violence and it needs a firm and neutral hand to put a lid on it before it spirals out of control. Is Nawaz Sharif the person to do it?
The fundamental question is whether or not Pakistan can live in peace within its current place in the prevalent international environment? Further, will it at least attempt to improve its image and become a responsible international citizen? From a purely academic point of view, there are a number of actions that could be initiated to clear up the mess, provided an incorrupt government can be installed at the Centre. [The operative word here, to make any of the following happen is ‘incorrupt’.] One, it could bring the relationship with India into an even keel—this being the opportune moment with a weakened Army and a nearly failed State that cannot meaningfully oppose any such move. However, this would mean ending the demand for an independent Kashmir and also neutralising the Taliban. Further, peace with India can only come by Pakistan letting go of Afghanistan—a hard task. Two, if Pakistan can work amicably with its neighbours and the US in Afghanistan, peace will gradually descend on the region. This would have many positive results, like sharing in the economic boom of the region. However, these actions would go completely against Pakistan’s long-held dream of becoming a regional hegemon to counter India’s rise. Is there a strong enough leadership trend in Pakistan to achieve all this?  
The answer, at least for the moment lies in the way in which Nawaz Sharif will act as the Prime Minister. The most important action that he has to initiate is to improve the civil-military and executive-judiciary relationships, and only then can rest of the much needed reforms be initiated. If the incoming government falls prey to the malice of political victimisation to settle old scores, Pakistan will drop off the brink. Nawaz Sharif has to become a statesman of calibre, moving to a higher plane above the level of a local politician—for the sake of the future of his country. Whether this transformation will be achieved or not, is a moot question, but much depends on it.   

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: