Pakistan’s election: Déjà vu all over again, or a New start?

Pakistan joined the long list of South Asian nations holding an election this year. Unlike the others, Pakistan’s election, held on February 8 this year, defied our expectations. In Bangladesh, the unfree and unfair election expected by all observers, and even by the jailed opposition, was exactly what happened, and the country continued on its path to full-fledged authoritarian rule. In India, the month-long election going on now looks pretty certain to re-elect Modi and the BJP. In the Maldives election in April, there was only mild surprise that a party favoring closer relations with China won a peaceful election. In Sri Lanka, if the election is held as scheduled in October, I suspect there will be no great surprises as to the winner. But Pakistan’s election in February took a surprising and possibly serious twist which no one, to my knowledge, predicted or expected. Readers will remember that the Pakistan election was postponed by a political crisis occasioned by Prime Minister Imran Khan losing a parliamentary vote of confidence and being bounced from office. He had won the 2018 election because the Army supported him and made sure he did win. The Army has traditionally been able to steer elections the way they want them to go. But during his tenure as PM, the Army had lost confidence in Khan, and that was made clear, which led to a general belief (and hope on the part of many) that the Army would make sure that his party, the PTI, did not win the election.

Contrary to all predictions, however, Khan’s PTI won a majority of seats even though Khan did not win one. For the first time in memory, the army was not able to steer an election the way it wanted it to go. This dealt a blow to the PML-N, the party of Khan’s primary competitor, Nawaz Sharif, but it was not fatal. It meant, however, that Sharif had to share power with other major, and not so major, parties, in a multiparty government in order to
have a majority in the parliament and control of the government. This required a different Prime Minister, Nawaz’s younger brother Shabaz. Clearly, this is not an ideal solution as it risks,, more than one, and possibly many more than one, hand on the steering wheel, either figuratively, two parties vying for control, or literally, Nawaz and Shabaz vying for dominance, either of which makes consistent precise policy much less likely. The control that Nawaz and Shabaz were allegedly seeking appears to be verging on chaos.

This failure of the Army to get its way politically raises the thought that, perhaps, its political grip on Pakistan is weakening. It is unclear what, if anything, would replace it, and whether this would be a positive or a negative development in the management of Pakistani society. Pakistani friends of mine are taking this as a sure sign that the Army is weakening as a political force in Pakistan. And this seems to be demonstrated in recent days by the increased power and voice of the judiciary which has pushed back successfully on government policies.

I have long believed that Pakistan is a country flirting with failure because it is governed (managed would be a better word) by two competing power sources, the Army and Pakistani Civil Society. It is a hybrid government, but the Army was always the more powerful part. It was driven by a dogma that civil society could not understand and manage Pakistan’s security interests. These security interests, of course, centered on Pakistan’s traditional enemy, India, and only a powerful military in charge of Pakistan security could keep India at bay. I came to these conclusions partially because my tenure in Pakistan coincided with the government of General Musharraf and I came to know the Pakistani military and its thinking very well.

So the question arises as to whether a weakened military, weaker primarily in the estimation of the Pakistani people, would provide impetus to forces of reform and repair to the social and political fabric of Pakistan. Or whether it will just accelerate the creeping but toxic social and political dysfunction that Pakistan has been undergoing for decades now. There is an argument that it was the military that slowed, and continues to slow, the political and economic deterioration of Pakistan. But I am not a partisan of that argument.

What else except this hybrid form of government can explain the horror stories emanating from this fragmented, very troubled country which add to the impression of a fragile and unstable state. When I look at Pakistan, I see a crumbling society which increasingly sees a government/military that cannot defend it from the many threats from a fractious and armed set of extremists and other independent actors (the government appears to have lost the primary principle of governance–the monopoly on violence), and an inherently weak and deteriorating economy that has been unable to pay for what it consumes for several decades and lives on external credit.

Today’s headline is that Pakistan is again going with its begging bowl to the IMF for another loan, and probably another faux reform program, the conditions of which Pakistan never manages to fulfill as far as I can tell. My computer tells me that Pakistan has had 22 such programs with the IMF (my Pakistani friends tell me that the number is actually 24). So, the economic situation could be accurately described as “déjà vu all over again.”

The economic problems are symbolic of deeper and fundamental structural social and political problems. I asked a friend, an expert on Military affairs, recently why the Army, which has always been the ultimate decider of policy, allowed Pakistan’s economy to be so dysfunctional. It seemed to me that the Army would have a significant interest in a strong resilient economy; after all, doesn’t the army have a strong interest in a strong country that could stand toe to toe with India. Her answer was that the Army has no ownership or investment in the State. The Army, which demands and gets an outsized portion of Government revenues, has no interest in building an economy that can provide those revenues. Pakistan has a tax system that resembles the poorest of the poor countries in Africa. I asked a well- known Pakistani economist recently what the current ratio of tax to GDP is in Pakistan. His answer was 9 percent. I had asked the same question about 10 years ago and the answer was, as I remember, 12 percent, and I have read that it was 14 percent in the mid 1980s.. So, things continue to deteriorate while the Army looks on, fat and happy.

This brings to mind the explanation one dear departed friend of mine had on how to analyze Pakistan. He reminded me and other attendees at a conference that for decades scholars had been analyzing Pakistan either from the perspective of “a glass half full,” which means that the country is dysfunctional but will avoid failure and muddle through as a result of being kept afloat by allies, or “a glass half empty,” which means its down hill spiral will ultimately end in failure. My friend suggested that the proper perspective for analyzing Pakistan was “a glass too large” By that, I think he meant that, in world or regional affairs Pakistan tends to try to punch well above its weight without laying the foundations for producing the resources it needs to do so. But I think that the Army’s illusion that the Pakistan glass is large has encouraged its poor economic decisions as well as the expectation that the major powers will continue to look the other way at the repeated economic and financial failures. The specter of default has hovered on the horizon for years, and beckons more strongly with every financial crisis.

Elections always have consequences. In most cases these consequences are visible well before the election. In some cases, the consequences surprise, however. In the case of Pakistan, the surprise of a weakened military may be a pipedream, and even if it is weakened the Pakistani military may not be up to the task of national reform and recovery, and the political parties demonstrate no capacity and less interest in stopping the slide into state failure.

About the Author: Ambassador (Ret’d) William B Milam is the Editor – South Asia Perspectives (SAP). President – Right to Freedom (R2F). Senior Scholar – Wilson Centre. Former US Ambassador to Bangladesh and Pakistan.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed