Pakistan is entering 2012 in the midst of a rising clamour for change. More and more political parties outside the ruling coalition led by President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party are mobilising the masses to demand a general election earlier than scheduled. In anticipation of this development, Pakistan’s political class is feverishly engaged in realigning loyalties, with Tehreek-i-Insaaf (the Justice Movement), a hitherto small party led by former cricketer Imran Khan, as the main beneficiary. In breaking away from the parlour games played by the older established parties since the last general election, he is staging huge rallies in the principal cities marked by unprecedented participation of the educated middle class, women and youth. While Zardari’s tenure has been noticeable for back-room political deals made to preserve a shaky coalition, Khan is successfully reconnecting with the masses. A competitive campaign by Nawaz Sharif, who was prime minister twice in the 1990s, is also heating up the political scene.
Considering the mounting excitement on the issue of elections and the fact that that the ruling coalition has a very low approval rating at the moment, the government has probably no option but to concede polls well before the end of 2012. This would be a major shift away from the government’s insistence that elections can be held only in 2013 when it completes its five-year tenure.
An earlier election may, however, help contain some other adverse dynamics at work. The all-too-frequent spontaneous protests by people hit hard by inflation, energy shortages, unemployment and deteriorating law and order can end up in anarchy.
Election campaigns by regular political parties, even if raucous, would impose a discipline of effort and hope on a seething mass of directionless social anger. No less importantly, a free and fair election may defuse civil-military tensions aggravated by speculation that the armed forces may be sucked into the current situation characterised by stasis, poor governance and wild rumours of corruption in high places. They are not expected to carry out a classic coup d’etat, but may use their clout to ring basic changes in the power hierarchy. For months the government has frittered away its energies in confronting the judicial activism of the Supreme Court and in warding off real or imaginary moves by the military to force its hand, especially on issues impinging on national security. Meanwhile, the cauldron of popular discontent has just about boiled over.
Pakistan’s last popular upsurge was against General Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorial contempt for its constitution and for complete restoration of democracy. An important consequence of the widespread disillusionment with the post-Musharraf government is an anti-democratic undercurrent of cynicism in a section of the population about another general election providing a solution to Pakistan’s social and political problems. Regrettably, the politicians have not demonstrated an ability to address real issues like the crippling shortfall in the energy sector, poor infrastructure, modernisation of agriculture and poverty alleviation. At a time when state-owned firms in China, Russia, India and Brazil have proved to be pillars of economic strength, notwithstanding the global supremacy of neo-liberal economics, Pakistan’s public enterprises such as Railways, Pakistan International Airlines and the Steel Mill have almost unravelled.
The core of the crisis is not a scarcity of material resources but a deficit of leadership. State building was, by definition, more difficult because some of the territories that federated to constitute it had been far from the metropolitan centres of the Mughal and British empires and had strong time-honoured tribal structures of their own. The recent devolution of power to the provinces is a belated recognition of the autonomy inherent in the very genesis of a multi-ethnic and multilingual state. The expectation that the expanding middle class would imbibe a more federal imagination has not been fulfilled as its ranks have generally become vocal exponents of sub-regional nationalisms. Efforts to reverse this diversity by resorting periodically to rule by strongmen, drawn from the army, resulted in cycles of authoritarian rule alternating with turbulent restoration of elected governments.
Pakistan’s history since the general election that brought about Musharraf’s downfall has shown that these cycles have greatly weakened state institutions and predisposed the governing political parties to perpetual anxiety about their survival in office. This uncertainty is reflected in a number of factors that undermine faith in Pakistan’s success as a state: gratuitous confrontations between the political government on one side and the armed forces and the Supreme Court on the other; self-aggrandisement in the ruling elite, indifference to governance and long-term planning; and fear of institutionalisation that signals voluntary restraint by rulers.
India has been rocked for months by scandals of corruption but its overall frame of good governance and rule of law has not been dented on the same scale as in Pakistan. The country can be turned around in a relatively short time if the next elections throw up leadership that restores the indispensable values of public service to its polity.
Tanvir Ahmad Khan is a former ambassador and foreign secretary of Pakistan.