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Defining times

This year promises to be an important one for Pakistan. The country has been undergoing rapid changes – an exploding youth bulge, disastrous politics and a virtual break down of law and order. Yet, Pakistan defies easy analysis. How do you reconcile the ‘most dangerous country in the world’ headlines with those of out-performing stock exchanges? How do you reconcile endemic corruption with the selflessness of Abdul Sattar Edhi?

It might not be obvious to the casual observer, but a logical convergence of these seemingly random tendencies is underway. And this year, for better or worse, things will come to a head. We can no longer continue to kick the can down the road as a nation.

A good first step is identifying the biggest risks facing the country in the short-term. The over-arching risk for the Pakistani polity is a further deterioration in the capabilities of the state. This is not to say that Pakistan is a failed or even failing state. Anatol Lieven has shown masterfully that the social, ethnic and economic bonds in Pakistan make it a ‘hard country’, ie hard to fail in the way Somalia has failed, for example.

But that should hardly be the standard. Moreover, the speed with which state institutions have decayed in recent times is unprecedented. This is the number one problem because the state itself is failing to carry out its basic functions. The resulting power vacuum is the primary cause of instability. Dynastic politics and martial laws have both contributed to the erosion of the state’s capabilities.

Next in line on the list of risks is the state of Pakistan’s politics. Some might object that the economy should take precedence. We will come to that soon enough, but evidence shows that in general, politics trumps economics as far as public policy decisions are concerned. This is certainly true for Pakistan, whose political economy framework must count as one of the most interesting yet frustrating cases to study. More specifically, there is a big question mark over the effectiveness of the two-party system.

Previous military interventions notwithstanding, the PPP and the PML-N have largely failed to deliver during repeated stints in power, and have remained parties only for the Bhuttos and the Sharifs respectively. This is precisely the reason behind the rise of Imran Khan and his PTI; people can see no other option.

Whether this third force can translate popularity into electoral majority remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: another five years of a self-serving, hobbled coalition will not take Pakistan forward.

Looking outward, there are challenges on the foreign policy front. The big test this year will be whether a re-calibration can be achieved in our two key relationships – with the United States and India. Regarding the former, it is high time both Islamabad and Washington admit that their strategic interests in the region are increasingly divergent. This realisation should lead to a more realistic relationship, minus the ridiculously-contrived public diplomacy.

With India, things have been more positive in recent times. Yet events on the Azad Jammu & Kashmir LoC this week show that things can turn bad pretty quickly. Again, realism should dictate Pakistan’s engagement with India; this might mean aiming for a mutually beneficial détente rather than an idealistic peace. The unfolding end game in Afghanistan has the potential to upset Islamabad’s plans regarding the US and India, as well as our relationship with other players in the region. Dealing with this must be the top priority this year, and for the immediate future.

The last major risk to consider is the economy. The reason for its position at the end of the list is not for lack of impact; it most directly affects every Pakistani. Rather, it is so because this problem can be most easily fixed if the governance aspect is sorted out. The basic legal, financial and physical infrastructures required for a sound economy exist, along with a favourable geographic location.

Periodic spurts of high growth in the country’s history show this to be true. What has been lacking, particularly in the past five years, is honesty and competence within the political leadership. The country cannot endure an unsustainable fiscal deficit, energy crisis and record levels of government borrowing for much longer than it already has.

It doesn’t take rocket science to identify these main risks, and it makes for some depressing reading indeed. However, times of great flux and uncertainty also provide an opportunity for great change for the better if such an opportunity is, indeed, seized.

The road to salvation lies only through a free and fair national election. As pointed out earlier, the two main parties have failed us miserably. The large number of young first time voters has the potential to upset the established electoral calculus, and herald in a new era. But it is only through the ballot box that such political change should come. At such a critical juncture, Pakistan simply cannot afford any unconstitutional moves – something its history is replete with. The so-called ‘establishment’ must realise that times have changed, and any miscalculations made this year will have dire consequences.

The writer is an international affairs consultant. Email:waqasaslam.rana@gmail.com

Waqas Aslam Rana, "Defining times," The News. 2013-01-16.