Is A New Pakistan In The Offing?

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Can the upcoming national elections in Pakistan fulfil electoral promises and bring about much-needed change? The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party, led by former cricket star Imran Khan, believes it can reverse the country’s declining fortunes. Khan unveiled a first 100-day revitalisation plan which includes transformation in governance, spurring economic growth and ensuring national security. Running on an anti-corruption platform, Khan and the PTI stand a fair chance of winning the elections and forming the next government.

But given the severe constraints, the PTI’s Naya (New) Pakistan slogan seems hollow and more populist rhetoric. Khan’s record of political agitation and incivility doesn’t inspire confidence that he can build the broad coalitions required in a democracy to introduce reforms. Nonetheless, voters could decide to give Khan and the PTI a chance at governance, as the other mainstream parties have largely failed to deliver during their terms in power. “When one with honeyed words but evil mind persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.” ? Euripides, Orestes.

Pakistan’s social and economic indicators point to a grim future. The critical tests facing the country include population growth, limited resources, illiteracy, religious extremism and an economic meltdown. The anticipated baby boom serves as a double-edged sword. A young productive population that is semi-literate, underemployed and financially stressed. That sharply increases the odds for continued political volatility and social unrest. Overall, human security has always taken a back seat to national security reflected in the country’s poor Human Development Indices.

The new government has to address some troubling social statistics. Estimates indicate that the population will grow from 200 million to 270-330 million by 2050. Unemployment is expected to rise to 43 million by 2050. Official youth unemployment (ages 15-24) already hovers around 11 percent. Public education is in shambles which contributes to poor education standards. 19 percent of children age six to 16 (eight percent boys, 11 percent girls) are out of school. Life expectancy is among the lowest, while the infant mortality rate is among the highest in the world. About 44 percent of children suffer from stunting or impaired growth due to severe malnutrition. Girls’ education and women empowerment, a growing priority in the developing world, receive scant attention.

The new government has to address some troubling social statistics. Estimates indicate that the population will grow from 200 million to 270-330 million by 2050. Unemployment is expected to rise to 43 million by 2050. Official youth unemployment (ages 15-24) already hovers around 11 percent. Public education is in shambles which contributes to poor education standards. 19 percent of children age six to 16 (eight percent boys, 11 percent girls) are out of school. Life expectancy is among the lowest, while the infant mortality rate is among the highest in the world. About 44 percent of children suffer from stunting or impaired growth due to severe malnutrition. Girls’ education and women empowerment, a growing priority in the developing world, receive scant attention.

The economic picture is not much better. “The government’s very narrow revenue base restricts fiscal flexibility and weighs on debt affordability,” Moody’s said in a recent report on Pakistan. The current annual budget allocated forty percent for debt servicing, thirty percent for the military and the remaining thirty percent for other activities. In the decade’s old vicious cycle, expensive new debt has replaced existing debt to finance significant fiscal deficits, which add to the debilitating servicing expenses (the debt stands at Rs16 trillion domestic and $76 billion external).

Defence spending is a sacred cow with no sign of a peace dividend on the horizon, despite the much-touted nuclear weapons capability. The tax to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is an embarrassingly low 11 percent. Moreover, Pakistan has a limited export sector, spiralling trade deficits, diminishing foreign currency reserves and a declining currency. People are the country’s best export, sending inward remittances to the tune of USD 18 billion annually, shoring up an otherwise struggling economy.

The good news is that Pakistan is not exactly considered a ‘failed state’ just yet! It seems that the rationale for the country’s existence is to provide a very comfortable life for around 5 million privileged people. The mostly Northern Punjabi elite comprising politicians, generals, feudal landowners, and businessmen live on the largesse and under the protection of the state. Another 30 or 40 million Pakistanis have a simple but bearable life, and the other 150 million live near or below the poverty line. Political and economic power has always remained concentrated in the same hands.

Therefore, Khan and the PTI’s challenges go beyond just job creation. Pakistan is a society, economy, and state with skewed priorities, which require radical measures. Some suggestions: The military accept a sizeable cut in the defence budget. A resolution of the lingering Kashmir dispute based on the premise of unchanged borders. The opening up of trade with neighbours, including India. The investments in public education, healthcare, and living standards financed from defence cuts. The retirement of existing internal and external debt from more efficient tax collection. And the list goes on. Overall, the priorities of the state have to shift from national security to human development.

Democracy isn’t just about working the crowds, and an anti-corruption agenda can only take a leader and party so far. If they come to power, Khan and his party will discover that governance within the ambit of democracy is hard work. Also, cosmetic changes to the system won’t address Pakistan’s dysfunction. Fresh ideas and a new direction need to replace the abundance of rhetoric. The brutal cycle that promotes inequality, precludes development and investment in the citizens of the country must end.

 

 

 

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