The past week saw another repeat of the gaps that continue to run down Pakistan’s outlook. As General Raheel Sharif, the well-respected army chief, made publicly clear that he had no intention of extending his tenure beyond his retirement, which is due in November this year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was conspicuous by his absence, conveniently on a mini-vacation to London and away from his increasingly challenged country.

Though a routine matter in many other countries, the news of the army’s chief promise to step down when his tenure ends, instantly grabbed the headlines across Pakistan’s print media and TV channels. Given the reality of Pakistan having been ruled by the military for a significant part of its history, the widespread interest in General Sharif’s future should not have been surprising. His decision to retire, for the moment appears to have lifted General Sharif’s credentials beyond his track record of leading an intense fight against hardline militants.

In sharp contrast, the prime minister, who is not related to General Sharif, first landed in the Swiss resort city of Davos to attend the World Economic Forum last weekend. His choice of heading to Davos was defended by some in the prime minister’s camp as an essential trip to attract new investors to Pakistan, to begin tackling the country’s many economic challenges. However, rather than turning back from Switzerland, prime minister Sharif flew to London where he is known to own a luxurious and spacious property overlooking the popular Hyde Park.

Though the prime minister may well prefer to relax in the comfort of his property located in Britain’s most expensive urban neighbourhood, the journey was yet another powerful reminder of a fundamental gap in the way Pakistan is being ruled as opposed to the reality surrounding the lives of its 200 million citizens.

Meanwhile, General Sharif’s clarification may well have lifted the uncertainty surrounding the future of Pakistan’s democratic politics. And yet, the uncertainty surrounding the more essential matter, which is the very future of Pakistan, is far from over.

In an ideal world, Pakistan should formally have declared a nationwide state of emergency many years ago and begun tackling some of the key challenges surrounding the nuclear-armed country. But complacency among members of its ruling class remains the tragic norm.

Pakistan’s multiple challenges are driven by the very acute security challenges dating back to the 1990s when the spill-over from the war in Afghanistan in the shape of militancy and a proliferation of weapons clearly undermined Pakistan. The country’s outlook was further aggravated in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks which led to the US-driven war in Afghanistan.

Today, Pakistan continues to deal with the consequences of the unending turmoil in Afghanistan and the consequences for the countries in its surrounding region. During this period of turmoil, the nine-year military rule of General Pervez Musharraf which was devoid of democratic politics in its true form, launched the military side of a still continuing campaign against militants in Pakistan’s rugged region along the Afghan border.

Though the army has scored military victories, the effort remains incomplete as there are gaps to be filled through concerted political, economic and societal measures.

Mounting challenges

This is where Pakistan’s return to democracy more than seven years ago when General Musharraf stepped down, has failed to meet the challenge. Sharif’s regime which came to power in 2013 — and its preceding regime led by former president Asif Ali Zardari, which came to power in 2008 — have both overseen an all-too-visible set of mounting challenges for Pakistan.

In sharp contrast to prime minister Sharif’s vision of driving economic progress through initiatives like new road projects, fancy highways and modern train networks, Pakistanis need support in radically different ways. In the past six months, farmers across the country, who make up for more than half of Pakistan’s population, have suffered in an unprecedented way due to a crash in prices of farm commodities.

Meanwhile, an energy crisis that engulfed the country after Zardari took charge of Pakistan, has continued to deepen year after year. Like previous years, the ongoing winter across Pakistan has witnessed household after household barely survive without adequate gas for cooking and heating. The discomfort from the energy crisis has only amplified with continuing shortages of electricity that have grown too in the past seven years.

On other fronts too, the outlook for Pakistan is far from impressive. In the past week as prime minister Sharif was outside the country, his interior minister, Chaudhary Nisar, came out in a very public rebuttal of opposition claims that the regime just hadn’t done enough to beat back militancy.

Weak political narrative

Notwithstanding the interior minister’s defence, the reality is that prime minister Sharif’s government hasn’t succeeded in building a strong enough political narrative to mobilise Pakistanis on a single platform against militancy. During prime minister Sharif’s tenure, Parliament has barely done enough to host a sustained and intense discussion on new policies that are necessary to tackle Pakistan’s security challenges.

On other fronts too, much has been offered by way of lip service to reform areas like the large network of ‘madrasas’ (Islamic schools) that have been long considered a major source of funding and training of militants. Yet, in reality, there is very little evidence in areas like tighter regulation of this network, which is essentially the civilian government’s responsibility, while the army takes on what it is trained to do — press ahead with the fight.

In the months ahead as the build-up continues to General Sharif’s retirement, prime minister Sharif may feel empowered in the knowledge that his government remains safe from a military intervention. And yet, that may well be his biggest mistake.

Pakistan’s ruling structure continues to be undermined by its failure to tackle some of the country’s most difficult challenges, even if the future of democracy is assured.

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.