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Pakistan’s democracy: after the honeymoon

Ian Talbot
3 August 2008

Pakistan's prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has entered his fifth month in office since being confirmed by a unanimous vote of confidence in the national assembly on 29 March 2008, four days after taking the oath of office. It has been a short honeymoon: for the euphoria which followed Pakistan's return to democracy, symbolised by the elections of 18 February 2008, has already been ended by mounting economic, political and security crises. The hopes that the electoral defeat of the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) - the party which supported and lent legitimacy to Pervez Musharraf during his near-decade of authoritarian rule as Pakistan's president - would usher in a new era is giving way to a growing sense of foreboding.

Ian Talbot is professor of history at the University of Southampton. His books include Pakistan: A Modern History (C Hurst, 2005)

Indeed, the change in the political atmosphere since Gilani's appointment was already apparent when he passed the landmark of 100 days in office on 5 July; on that occasion, the PML-Q issued a "white paper" boldly characterising Gilani's performance as "100 days of betrayal". It seemed that one of the few achievements of Pakistan's new democracy was to allow the previously discredited PML-Q and the formerly beleaguered - though still unpopular - President Musharraf to acquired a renewed self-confidence.

To understand these varying political and psychological currents, it is helpful to step back a little and reflect on the historical parallels and problems which contextualise the contemporary scene.

The price of democracy

Pakistan's history has been littered with failed transitions from the rule of (or backed by) the military to rule by politicians. Indeed, analysts and commentators have tended to overestimate the ability of a single election to alter the entrenched power of the military and a political culture which is marked by infighting and opportunism, rather than accommodation and statesmanship.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan politics:

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamabad" (4 June 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan's peril" (19 July 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan: the power of the gun" (7 November 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's multi-faceted crisis" (12 November 2007)

Iftikhar H Malik, "Pakistan: misgovernance to meltdown" (19 November 2007)

Saskia Sassen, "Lahore: urban space, niche repression" (21 November 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Benazir Bhutto: the politics of murder" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's critical moment" (11 February 2008)

Furhan Iqbal, "Pakistan and violence: memory, shame, and repression" (18 February 2008)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008) The pattern of euphoria followed by disillusion which surrounded Benazir Bhutto's first election victory in 1988 has some echoes in Pakistan's situation in 2008. The original joint government leaders - Asif Ali Zardari (Benazir's widower, and leader of her Pakistan's People's Party [PPP]) and Nawaz Sharif (of the PML-N, and like Benazir twice prime minister in the era between the military rule of Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf) - began by showing some effort to learn lessons from the past. But they have not been able to escape disturbing parallels between the 1990s and today: in the collapse of their coalition cabinet on 13 May after just six weeks in office, in the existence of multiple centres of power that work against coherent leadership, and in the way that day-to-day political pressures overwhelm the space for strategic thinking.

There is no easy way to address these problems. But it does seem clear already that in the absence of a concerted effort to strengthen Pakistan's political institutions and restructure civil-military relations, the possibility of future military intervention cannot be ruled out.

The question of political legitimacy and the consolidation of democracy is closely tied to Pakistan's economic predicament. For it is equally clear that Pakistan can only strengthen its economy in the face of external economic storms if it addresses the need to diversify its exports, increase its tax base and reduce its expenditure imbalances. The Gilani government has already been buffeted to the extent that mounting inflation - now running at an annual rate of 13%, far above projections for 2008 - is eclipsing its early achievements (for example, on income support for the poor, higher minimum wages and increased salaries for government officials).

Thus poor Pakistanis are today bearing the brunt of rising food, petroleum and gas prices much as the impact of "structural-adjustment policies" recommended by Pakistan's creditors in the 1990s fell on their shoulders. Then, growing poverty and economic dislocation helped to undermine democracy, and the signs are that even in a very different macroeconomic environment the effects now could be similar.

Pakistan's economy was boosted by a post-9/11 boom, which was always built on less than solid foundations and in any case now seems to have faded. The country faces slowing rates of growth (from 7.2% to 5.5% on current calculations), a rising fiscal deficit and a widening trade gap as it continues to live beyond its means. Moreover, behind these indices are deeper structural problems which must be addressed if democracy in Pakistan is to be strengthened. over the long term. A strategy to this effect would require concerted action to reduce Pakistan's glaring inequalities of income, power and access to public services. Where 10% of the population possess 26.3% of the national income, and the poorest are excluded from any meaningful share, social progress cannot be guaranteed merely by relying on the trickle-down effects from a declining rate of economic growth.

The Islamabad tussle

The government formed after the 18 February election was always going to face difficult problems of political and economic management, given its inheritance and mixed composition. These were not long in coming to a head, as the PML-N decision to quit the cabinet on 13 May included the departure of the experienced finance minister Ishaq Dar. But it is the controversy over the judiciary which marked the last months of Pervez Musharraf's rule - and in particular, the failure of the new government to reach agreement on when and how to restore to office the judges who refused to take the oath demanded of them when Musharraf imposed emergency rule on 3 November 2007 - which has dominated the political scene.

The different approaches to this issue on the part of the PML-N and PPP were visible during the election campaign, though they seemed to have been resolved when the coalition was sealed in the Murree declaration on 9 March. But the timetable to re-instal the judges was not met, and the historic alliance between the two parties was further strained by the PPP's insistence on seeking to resolve the issue as part of a constitutional package rather than by means of a straightforward resolution in the national assembly. The withdrawal of the PML-N from the cabinet that followed has been presented as a mistake by Asif Ali Zardari and some of his close aides; viewed in a longer perspective, it is hardly surprising that these two parties - whose rivalry has lasted for a generation - found it hard to work together.

The rivalry is likely to persist, for many issues large or small are subject to instant partisan interpretation. The rift between the PPP and PML-N has, for example, been further exposed by the security campaign launched on 30 June in the Khyber Agency (about which the PML-N complained that it had not been consulted). The beginnings of a future tussle for influence can also be seen in the key state of Punjab, where Mian Shahbaz Sharif's return to the post of chief minister on 21 June (following a by-election success, though pending confirmation after legal challenges) contrasts with the appointment (with effect from 17 May) of a PPP-leaning governor in the person of Salman Taseer.

Such internecine political disputes both distract attention from more pressing economic and security issues, and prevent the introduction of progressive reforms (such as a new freedom-of-information law, the establishment of promised literacy and health corporations, and the formation of an employment commission). The Yousuf Raza Gilani government also failed to deliver on its promise to have set up a truth-and-reconciliation commission in troubled Balochistan within its first three months in office.

Pervez the ghost

All this is bad news for Pakistan's tussling political parties and for Pakistani democracy - but it, and especially the dispute over the judges, has brought breathing-space for a President Musharraf whose career and reputation looked over at the time of the election in February 2008.

As Pakistan's political and legal crises multiplied in 2007, it seemed that Musharraf's fall would be followed by his impeachment. If that now looks unlikely, so does the prospect of there being sufficient parliamentary support for a constitutional package designed to remove the president's power to dissolve the assembly and remove the prime minister.

Musharraf's continued presence may overshadow the political parties he long repressed, but it is reassuring for western powers - principally Pakistan's chief ally the United States - which have become increasingly alarmed by the impact of cross-border infiltration from Pakistan into southern Afghanistan. Washington delivered a number of messages in July 2008 that it was prepared to deploy its forces in "hot-pursuit" operations across the border into Pakistan and to undertake unilateral action against militant strongholds in the tribal areas.

Such a step would be vigorously opposed within Pakistan, where the casualties inflicted on civilians and Pakistan's security personnel by wayward US targeting is already a source of anger. It would also squeeze the new government even further. Gilani's cabinet has extended the policy of seeking peace deals with militant groups - introduced when Shaukat Aziz was prime minister, with the Miramshah agreement in Waziristan in September 2006. It remains highly unpopular among Pakistan's western allies, as well as beset by problems of implementation.

The growing concerns within Pakistan of a creeping "Talibanisation" - from the tribal agencies to the settled areas - have led to military action in Swat and the Khyber Agency. The persistent fighting between the Pakistani army and Taliban militants in Swat has claimed the lives of dozens on both sides, as well as civilians). Against this, the situation in Malakand improved after the banned Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) renounced militancy, following the release of its leader Maulana Sufi Mohammed on 21 April 2008 after six years in detention. Though even here, Sufi Mohammed's son-in-law Fazlullah - who led the TNSM leadership in the older man's absence - has promised to continue the struggle.

A neighbourly fallout

The sense of an ominous opening to the new democratic era is compounded by the way that the tensions between India and Pakistan have actually seemed to worsen, in a number of ways:

* the already stalled "composite dialogue" between the two states have not progressed in the wake of Pakistan's elections as had been hoped

* a number of internal developments within Indian-administered Kashmir culminated in the introduction of direct rule and the resumption of firing along the "line of control" (LoC), breaking a 2003 ceasefire; there were four exchanges of fire between Indian and Pakistani troops in July 2008, and India alleged that Pakistani forces had actually twice breached the line

* New Delhi more or less openly accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of responsibility for the bombing of its embassy in Kabul on 7 July 2008 - a charge reinforced by United States intelligence agencies on the basis of electronic interception (see "Pakistan Aided Attack in Kabul, U.S. Officials Say", New York Times, 1 August 2008)

* the political controversy inside India over its nuclear agreement with the United States, whose chances of ratification were improved by the Indian parliamentary vote on 22 July, has highlighted the unresolved nuclear rivalry between the two states.

All this has had the effect of signalling that the improved relations of the 2002-07 period are not irreversible. The successive bilateral meetings of the foreign ministers and prime ministers of India and Pakistan on 31 July and 2 August 2008 on the margins of a south Asian regional summit in Sri Lanka - the most senior encounter between the sides since April 2007 - is notable in this context, though the results of Gilani's promise to investigate concerns over the Kabul bombing remain to be seen. 

At a time of mounting domestic crisis, Pakistan thus faces the uneasy prospect of deteriorating relations both with its main ally and with its inescapable neighbour. It is hardly surprising that Yousuf Raza Gilani's first four months in office are an occasion for accumulating worries and stern criticism. After the short honeymoon, Pakistani democracy is again in trouble.

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