A difficult new year —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

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askariUnsatisfactory performance in the economic domain has been most damaging to the PPP’s reputation and has created the impression that the government lacks operational strategies to address the problems of the common people

Pakistan faces a complex domestic situation and a threatening foreign and security environment at the beginning of 2009, a more problematic situation than was the case at the start of 2008, which began under the shadow of Bhutto assassination and the violent reaction to it. The challenges at the moment are more multifaceted than those in 2008.

Pakistan’s political leadership faces a test of their political acumen and capacity for effective governance in addressing these issues. Their policies over the next six months will have profound implications not only for their own political future, but for the fate of the ongoing democratic experiment as well.

This will also be a test for the military leadership, whose support is crucial to coping with the internal and external challenges. Will they continue to work with the political leadership despite the latter’s managerial problems, or lose patience and take a more active role in policymaking and execution? How far the military’s autonomous initiative improves the capacity of the state to handle challenges is an open question.

There were some noteworthy achievements during the last year. The February general elections were followed by the installation of elected governments at the federal and provincial levels. In August, General Pervez Musharraf resigned as the President of Pakistan, making way for Pakistan People’s Party chief Asif Ali Zardari, whose ascendancy to the presidency consolidated the PPP’s power.

The post-election environment was more open, with the increased activity of societal groups and a vibrant media that carved out an autonomous role for itself. Political discourse was more inclusive of all perspectives, and embraced all major socio-cultural, politico-economic and regional-ethnic issues.

But these positive developments have been overtaken at the turn of the year by the growing perception that the government lacks a long-term coherent vision for society and the political system. The inability to improve faltering governance and poor political management disappointed many.

If the PPP wants to sustain its primacy in the political system, it will have to immediately attend to this growing alienation among the people; this is going to be the major challenge for the present-day ruling elite. Unsatisfactory performance in the economic domain has been most damaging to their reputation and has created the impression that the government lacks operational strategies to address the problems of the common people.

The government has repeatedly failed to sustain the supply of essential commodities in the market. These shortages have become a routine affair: in weekly cycles, some food and other items run short. This naturally causes price hikes that put these items beyond the purchasing power of the common people. It seems that these shortages are created intentionally for the benefit of the market manipulators. The situation is worsened when coupled with the poor law and order situation.

Frequent power breakdowns and the overall shortage of supply have not only undermined the economy, causing closure of or underproduction in industry, but have also caused much inconvenience to the people. Similarly, periodic gas shortages in households, industry and transport have added to the misery. In December 2008, various cities experiences serious shortages of petrol for several days after the government lowered its price. Petrol was being sold at some places at a higher-than-official price. It is clear now that the government is either unable or unwilling to address these problems.

If the government cannot deal with these issues in the next four months, or if it fails to convince the people that it is doing all that it can, opposition parties will easily exploit this failure. The PPP’s relations with the PMLN have already run into difficulties because they diverge on how to implement the commitments made in the pre-election period. While the PMLN wants these commitments implemented in letter an spirit, the PPP is implementing them selectively in view of its partisan interests.

The conflict between the two main parties of Pakistan is expected to accentuate in 2009 because both sides have people who are strongly antipathetic to the other party. A section of the PPP in the Punjab led by the governor wants to dislodge the PMLN provincial government. The PMLN is expected to contest this effort by all possible means because it cannot afford to lose Pakistan’s largest province, which is also the mainstay of its power.

The PPP-PMLN confrontation can destabilise the political system and weaken the government’s resolve to cope with religious extremism and militancy and their negative impact on Pakistan’s internal and external security.

Pakistan experienced 63 suicide and car-bomb attacks in 2008, killing 725 — the highest number in a single year since 2001. Most of these attacks were owned by the Taliban and affiliated groups based in the tribal areas. This threat persists and similar incidents can take place in the future. Pakistan’s security forces have made significant gains in the tribal areas, but these groups continue to be entrenched there; the Taliban threat is far from over.

The Mumbai attacks have underlined the need to contain militant groups based in mainland Pakistan. These groups have developed links with the Taliban and help each other launch violent attacks. This means that Pakistan will have to simultaneously take on the tribal areas groups as well as those in the mainland. Taking action against mainland groups will be quite problematic, as they have developed roots in society, and enjoy the sympathy of the society as well as some official circles. Pakistan’s Islamist political parties openly sympathise, if not support, these militant groups.

Militancy is the biggest threat to Pakistan’s internal stability and foreign policy options in 2009. Civilian and military authorities will have to work together to adopt short- and long-term strategies to cope with this challenge. Without tackling this threat, Pakistan will face serious problems in its interactions at the global level.

Pakistan’s rulers need to set their priorities: should they assign greater importance to the economy and work towards controlling militancy, or grab more power by threatening to dislodge the PMLN in the Punjab?

Pakistan’s internal and external challenges call for peace and stability among the major political forces. The PMLN already opposes security operations in the tribal areas and it is expected to oppose tough action against mainland militant groups in order to build counter-pressure on the government. Its cooperation for counterterrorism and counter-militancy policies can be obtained by accommodating its concerns in the domestic political context, especially in the Punjab.

Political accommodation with the opposition is a prerequisite to improving governance, providing economic relief to the people and addressing the immediate threat of religious extremism and militancy. Failure to do so will undermine Pakistan’s capacity to function as the coherent and supreme authority within its territorial limits, which will in turn have implications beyond its borders.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

Reproduced by permission of Daily Times


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