Some commentators, who are perfectly rational and do not believe in such esoteric things as numerology or the relevance of dates, have – nevertheless – observed that May 11 has a special significance for Pakistan. It was on this day in 1998 that India abandoned its long-established policy of nuclear ambiguity and demonstrated its weapons capability by conducting a series of test explosions in the sun-scorched wilderness of the Pokhran desert. Pakistan’s matching response 17 days later, in the face of threats to its survival, irreversibly transformed the geopolitics of South Asia. The discarded Cold War doctrine of ‘mutually-assured destruction’ was to permanently define the accident-prone Pakistan-India equation.
A segment of political opinion in the country has bought into this fanciful narrative and is convinced that yet another transformation, again on May 11, is on the anvil as Pakistan braces itself for the next elections. PPP loyalists are at pains to explain that, for the first time ever, a popularly elected civilian government has completed its full five-year term and power will be transferred through free and fair elections to its successor.
The incessant refrain is that during the tenure of the PPP-led coalition, the National Assembly met 50 times, remained in session for an unprecedented 665 days, passed 134 bills, adopted 85 resolutions and blazed the trail by electing a woman as its speaker. It is claimed that the political landscape has been completely transformed and democracy has finally triumphed.
But the hollowness of this boast was laid bare in a recent countrywide survey conducted by the British Council. Of the 5,000 respondents, all between the 18 to 20-year age-bracket, only a paltry 29 percent had faith in democracy, while 32 percent preferred military rule, 38 percent wanted the imposition of Shariah and, a stunning 94 percent were convinced that the country was heading dangerously close towards the jagged edge of a precipice.
What other outcome could one expect from a hopelessly inept system that is dominated by the ravings of second-rate politicians and third-rate theologians whose forte is the trivialisation of true religion? The youth’s disenchantment with democracy is exacerbated by the comatose state of the economy, corruption in high places, and the never-ending incidents of terrorist violence.
Even a fleeting glimpse of the economic performance of the previous government reveals that in the first eight months of this fiscal year it spent Rs950 billion more than it earned. From this amount, Rs713 billion went toward interest payments and the balance was spent on power subsidies. There was no outlay for development expenditure and ordinary citizens were callously left to wallow in poverty. The prognosis for the coming months is bleak.
Foreign private and official capital inflows have virtually evaporated. The State Bank’s foreign exchange reserves have progressively dwindled from $10.8 billion in July last year to $8.7 billion at the end of January 2013, and currently hovers precariously at $6.7 billion. This will be further eroded because $838 million will have to be repaid to the IMF within the current fiscal year while a further $3.49 billion is due for repayment in the next 12 months.
The smoke signals rising from the parched economic landscape are portentous. The post-election government, which the leading political parties are so foolishly eager to form, has no option other than to renegotiate another IMF bailout package. Unless Pakistan receives timely coalition support fund payment from the US, it will need IMF assistance as early as the first quarter of the next year.
This means that structural reforms built around the imperatives of raising revenues and drastically slashing expenditure will have to be immediately undertaken. But this is easier said than done. The rosy haze of pious promises in the manifestos announced by the political parties obscures the grim reality that in the last three years the country has had only 270,000 tax payers.
The previous government, which prides itself for having transformed the politics of Pakistan and restored unfettered democracy to its ivory throne, was least concerned about generating revenues. In the last four years it arbitrarily granted a colossal Rs719 billion in tax exemptions to influential lobbies and business enterprises.
The second reason for the disillusionment of the youth with democracy is corruption among those perched in the lofty nests of privilege and power. The Election Commission of Pakistan has posted details of the tax profiles of politicians on its website. The data shows that the PPP’s Faryal Talpur, the president’s sister, paid less than Rs300,000 in annual taxes whereas her declared income is more than Rs22 million. Similarly, former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, of Polo Lounge fame, paid less in taxes than the cost of her hallmark Birkin handbag. Even worse, while she was in office, her husband secured a loan write-off amounting to a massive Rs56 million.
On the other side of the political divide, the ECP website shows that the Qaumi Watan Party leader, Aftab Sherpao, despite an income of Rs3 million, paid a dismal Rs58,882 in taxes. Humayun Akhtar of the PML (Likeminded Group), whose entrepreneurial expertise has created a sprawling business empire, contributed a meagre Rs200,000 to the country’s revenues. Several politicians with annual incomes of around Rs5 million have been paying less than Rs30,000 in taxes over the years.
All this is merely the tip of the iceberg. It is no more than a symptom of the actual malaise. Corruption, like a cancerous growth, has devoured faith in democracy among the youth and the populace. The disease, however, is not terminal. Pakistan will survive because it is sustained by the undocumented black economy which is larger than its formal counterpart. The implication is that ordinary people will continue to be enslaved by poverty, which provides terrorist outfits a huge reservoir for recruitment into their cadres.
The intelligence briefing to the Supreme Court on March 26 reveals that 49,000 people have lost their lives in terrorist violence since 9/11. The last five years account for more than 25,000 of these deaths. In the same period there were 235 suicide hits, 9,257 rocket attacks and 4,156 bomb explosions. This year there have already been more than 120 blasts and, in January alone, 63 detonations wreaked havoc.
This then is the real picture. Whatever the outcome of the May 11 elections, the problems besetting the country will remain unaltered. The near economic meltdown, corruption and terrorism are the three separate but interlocking elements that have collectively resulted in a preference for military rule over democracy among ordinary people. But there can be change and the starting point has to be the conclusive defeat of extremist violence because the indispensible prerequisite for economic growth is peace and security.
The house arrest of former president Gen (r) Pervez Musharraf on Friday, as per the orders of the Islamabad High Court the previous day, is undoubtedly as sensational as it is unprecedented. But it does not diminish the power and influence that the military has wielded and will continue to wield in Pakistan. It is not possible to change what has been the dominant political reality of the country for the past 55 years through a solitary court order. The transformation has to be gradual.
This has been tacitly acknowledged in one of the clauses of the PML-N manifesto which, though largely unnoticed, affirms that in future the seniority principle will be applied for the appointment of army chiefs. The reason, according to a party insider, is to avoid creating discontent within the army because the consequences could be disastrous. He then confided to me: “We don’t have any illusions where actual power resides. The transformation will be slow and will gradually emerge after democracy becomes well-entrenched. This cannot be achieved overnight. It will require at least two or three more elections, whether or not successive governments are able to complete their terms.”
The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly. Email: iftimurshed@ gmail.com
Keywords: Political issues , Supreme court , Political parties , Economic growth , Corruption , Democracy , Elections , Faryal Talpur , Hina Rabbani Khar , Gen Pervez Musharraf , India , PMLN , PPP , IMF , ECP