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Pakistan’s hopes rest with third-chance prime minister July 12, 2013

Posted by southasiamasala in : Mollaun, Alicia, Pakistan , trackback

Alicia Mollaun

On 11 May, Pakistan achieved a historic milestone: for the first time, a democratically elected government was replaced by another democratically elected government. In a country ruled for over half of its existence by the military, this was a notable outcome.

The lead-up to the election, and election day itself, was marred by violence. Over 120 people were killed in the weeks before the election. On election day, more than 600 000 security personnel were deployed to protect 70 000 polling stations, half of which were considered to be in sensitive locations and vulnerable to attack.

Despite heightened security, voting was tainted by violence: at least 38 people were killed and over 130 were injured. The Election Commission of Pakistan had to defer elections for three National Assembly seats and six seats of the provincial assemblies because candidates had died – some of natural causes; others were killed. Many candidates were kidnapped, including former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani’s son, who was taken by militants while campaigning for a seat in Multan.

Over 60 per cent of Pakistan’s 86 million registered voters (including 36 million newly registered voters) waited in long lines in the hot sun for the chance to vote. The result: Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led by two-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, won the majority of seats in the 342-seat National Assembly.

Nawaz was elected to the prime minister’s office on 5 June, becoming the first Pakistani to take the office for a third time. Nawaz had two ill-fated terms in government: the first ending in 1993 following a political stoush with the president, and the second in 1999, when General Pervez Musharraf staged a coup and installed himself as president.

Nawaz is hoping his third time is a charm – though his first term back in office will be challenging. Pakistan is mired in political, economic, social and security challenges. While Nawaz may continually look over his shoulder at the Army, given how his last term as prime minister ended, most analysts argue that it is unlikely his government will be toppled through a military coup, because the military simply are not interested in taking on Pakistan’s myriad problems.

The people of Pakistan voted in the PML-N to fix these problems. Pakistan has more problems than most new democracies – domestic terrorism is spiralling out of control; the economy has slowed; an energy crisis is causing significant harm to industry, livelihoods and quality of life; and there are deadly ethnic and social tensions, particularly in Sindh and Balochistan provinces. So what is Nawaz Sharif’s government planning to do about these problems in its first 100 days?

The government’s first priority must be the economy and fixing the long-running energy crisis. Waiting to do something to fix the economy because of a preoccupation with security was an election-losing error for the previous government, led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Nawaz’s new government must tackle both problems simultaneously if Pakistan is to have any hope of developing economically.

The biggest problem in Pakistan’s economy is the energy crisis, which plunges the country into unproductivity for up to 20 hours a day. Unable to afford to maintain back-up generator power, small businesses sit idle while the power is switched off. In the capital, Islamabad, the power goes off at regular intervals, for at least 6–8 hours a day. Parts of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, are without power for 17–20 hours a day. When shopping at a local market and asking the vendor to switch on a light so I could examine his wares more closely, he said: ‘Come back at 2pm, the power is off until then’. At tailoring shops, when asking how long it takes to have a new suit made, the answer is ‘longer than usual because of load shedding’.

Power cuts have affected one of Pakistan’s most important export industries. In the past four years, it is estimated that the textile industry has suffered losses of over 200 billion rupees because of load shedding. With over 50 per cent of Pakistan’s exports coming from the textile industry, this should be deeply concerning to the new government.

Nawaz summarised the dilemma when speaking to a conference in May, celebrating the anniversary of Pakistan’s successful nuclear tests in 1998: ‘Are other nuclear powers in the same state as Pakistan? We should look into the reasons why the country doesn’t even have electricity’. Nawaz is hoping to get some immediate relief by taking money from Saudi Arabia, which will, allegedly, help bail out the sector and provide cheap oil.

Next, in its first 100 days, the government must begin to tackle country’s diabolical security situation. Rarely a day goes by without a report of terrorism claiming a life. In 2012, 6211 people – equating to 17 a day – lost their lives in terrorism-related violence. In January 2012, there were 47 incidents of terrorist violence. For a country not officially at war, these figures are astounding.

One of Nawaz’s first meetings after the election was with the Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to discuss security, especially how to stop domestic terrorism and the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), or the Pakistani Taliban, from attacking Pakistani civilians, security personnel and institutions. This has become even more difficult now that the Taliban have suspended peace talks with the government following the US drone strike that killed the TTP’s second-in-command. A Taliban spokesman threatened to respond to the attack with full force and said: ‘On one hand the Pakistani Government is advocating the mantra of peace talks, and on the other it is colluding with the United States and killing the Taliban leadership.’

It is not just terrorist-related violence that is crippling Pakistan; political and sectarian violence have a stranglehold over entire cities. Since election day, politicians have been targeted: Zahra Shahid Hussain, senior vice-president of Imran Kahn’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was shot dead, and Farid Khan of PTI was killed outside his home in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

One of the most violent cities is Karachi, Pakistan’s financial centre and home to over 20 million people, where armed wings of political parties battle it out in the streets for power. Driving through Karachi, the tension is obvious. In some areas, only a street divides one political party from another, with large posters, flags and graffiti clearly marking out territory. The political violence in Karachi has provided cover for the Taliban to move in. During recent Supreme Court hearings, judges ordered an investigation into the claim that over 8000 Taliban were in the city. Security forces say Taliban are raising funds in Karachi through robbery, extortion and kidnappings.

Again, the security situation is affecting the economy. A representative from Karachi’s business community estimated that 20 000–25 000 businesses have left the city, and that the economic loss equals about $10 million dollars a day. Businessmen he talks with have begun hiring private security guards and are getting licences to carry weapons.

Sectarian violence is increasing, with the Shia minority continually targeted. Of the 91 sectarian acts of violence in Pakistan in 2012, 88 occurred in Karachi. The head of Pakistan’s Human Right’s Commission said: ‘It’s a good day in Karachi when only five or so people are killed, because on average it would be eight to 10 a day’.

With security figures this dire it is hard to imagine what Nawaz Sharif’s government will do to improve the situation. The security landscape has become so complex – linked to poverty, the economy, poor rule-of-law, and corruption – that a policy solution to this ‘wicked problem’ is likely a long way off.

Nawaz Sharif needs to demonstrate in his first 100 days that he is serious about improving the lot of the Pakistani people, who are clinging to the hope that the new government cannot possibly be worse than the PPP’s last five years in office – and also the hope that one day Pakistan will start climbing the ladder of development and realising its potential.

Alicia Mollaun is a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. She is based in Islamabad.

This article first appeared in the most recent edition of the Asian Currents.


1. Ercelan - July 13, 2013

sadly no more than a middle class essay — the politics of a predatory state always being hidden behind the banal state of politics. but then this is the inevitable disaster of ‘based in Islamabad.’