Back In Pakistan

By , 15 March, 2013, No Comment

I’m back in Pakistan today, for the first time since I ended my stint as a foreign correspondent three years ago. I’m here because a risky but incredibly important thing is about to happen. For the first time in the country’s history, a democratically elected government, having served out its full term, is going to hand over to another democratically elected government in a constitutionally sanctioned process.

Pakistan’s constitution provides for a caretaker government – whose composition must be agreed upon by both government and opposition parties – to govern from the moment the outgoing team steps down until elections can be held. This government’s term officially expires tomorrow, March 16th, and elections are expected to take place in early May.

Yet with 24 hours left, the composition of the caretaker government remains something of a mystery. The leading opposition party, PML-N, put forward its list of nominees last week, but government leaders dismissed those names. The government’s own list of recommendations is out today and backchannel discussions are underway to find a solution by tomorrow. The Express Tribune has published a useful set of bios of the contenders.

Meanwhile, both of the major parties have unveiled their electoral manifestos.

The governing People’s Party manifesto focuses on making populist promises to the country’s poor: expanding a cash-transfer program for poor women, raising the minimum wage and promising to keep energy prices low. There is an interesting section on addressing Pakistan’s youth bulge and youth unemployment, proposing a scheme by which young people would be provided with training and work experience opportunities with the goal of enabling them to find formal work or start their own businesses. “A large proportion of the jobs created will be in the social sector (elementary education, basic health care) and will form part of the Party’s programme for the expansion of social services,” says the manifesto. It’s a nice idea, like David Cameron’s workfare program crossed with Americorps, but it’s exactly the kind of structural change that the PPP has failed at implementing over its five year term, so color me skeptical.

It’s not just the security situation, which has gotten steadily worse over the government’s run, or the cloud of corruption and incompetence that hangs over day-t0-day administration. The country’s economy is in dire straits. The latest Worldwide Threat Assessment from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence is damning in its section on Pakistan:

Pakistan, with its small tax base, poor system of tax collection, and reliance on foreign aid, faces no real prospects for sustainable economic growth. The government has been unwilling to address economic problems that continue to constrain economic growth. The government has made no real effort to persuade its disparate coalition members to accept much-needed policy and tax reforms, because members are focused on retaining their seats in upcoming elections. Sustained remittances from overseas Pakistanis (roughly $13 billion from July 2011 to June 2012, according to Pakistan’s central bank) have helped to slow the loss of reserves. However, Pakistan has to repay the IMF $1.7 billion for the rest of this fiscal year for money borrowed as part of its 2008 bailout agreement; growth was around 3.5 percent in 2012; and foreign direct investment and domestic investment have both declined substantially.

Indeed, the government’s record has been so dismal that many Pakistan watchers thought it unlikely the PPP would survive a five-year term at all.

Many parties helped get the government this far, but particular credit goes to both the army chief General Kayani, and the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, who could have rocked the boat by pushing for military takeover or early elections during the government’s vulnerable moments. In the case of Sharif, that’s an entirely pragmatic choice. He surmised, as I wrote 4 years ago, that the government’s poor performance combined with the collapse of Pervez Musharraf’s party (PML-Q) following his fall, would make him the frontrunner in any elections. So he chose to wait it out in Punjab province, which his party controls, and exploit the contrast between the PML-N’s record in Punjab and the national party’s floundering. I’ll be looking at that record in detail while I’m here.

But that’s not enough to ensure that Sharif has a third shot at the Prime Minister-ship (a post he held twice in the 1990’s): current polling suggests a hung parliament and negotiations to bring a coalition government into place. In those negotiations, Imran Khan, the ex-cricketer whose party has risen to an unlikely third place by appealing to young people and those disaffected from mainstream politics, is likely to play a critical role as a potential king-maker. His manifesto will be released on the 23rd, but I am hoping to sit down with him before then and talk about his priorities and the audience he’s reaching that the major parties are not.

I’ll be updating this blog and posting for Forbes while here, so stay tuned.

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