Pak­istan's democ­racy is liv­ing on bor­rowed time

The Financial Daily - - NATIONAL - Farhan Bokhari

Be­hind an­other sorry week for the pop­u­la­tion lies a long tale of of­fi­cial com­pla­cency and a wor­ry­ing fail­ure to hold min­is­ters ac­count­able

As mil­lions of Pak­ista­nis des­per­ately searched for petrol across the south Asian coun­try in the past week, Pak­istan's po­lit­i­cal land­scape was be­com­ing noth­ing com­i­cal yet again. The all too pow­er­ful ac­coun­tant-turned-fi­nance min­is­ter Ishaq Dar, a close con­fi­dante and rel­a­tive of Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif, kicked off a telling salvo when he pro­nounced that the vis­i­bly acute short­ages were caused by a con­spir­acy.

As if Dar's claim wasn't fit enough to be­come the butt of on­go­ing jokes, pe­tro­leum min­is­ter Shahid Khaqan Ab­bassi sim­ply added to the con­fu­sion on Fri­day by hold­ing Pak­istan's me­dia re­spon­si­ble for caus­ing a hype and pro­vok­ing the worst pe­tro­leum short­age in the coun­try's his­tory. Iron­i­cally, this lat­est cri­sis came at a time when the world is flush with cheap oil. There­fore, it must speak vol­umes over the fail­ure of Sharif's rul­ing struc­ture to take charge of the Is­lamic world's only coun­try armed with nu­clear weapons and over­see a pe­riod of in­creas­ing sta­bil­ity.

Wel­come once again to an­other case of the mul­ti­fac­eted tur­moil that en­gulfs Pak­istan. Though rul­ing politi­cians ea­gerly washed their hands off any re­spon­si­bil­ity for the petrol cri­sis, their take was noth­ing short of an out­right façade.

This lat­est cri­sis must also raise deeply trou­bling ques­tions over the fu­ture of Pak­istan's democ­racy, more than six years af­ter Gen­eral Pervez Mushar­raf, the last mil­i­tary ruler, stepped down to pave the way for a re­turn to civil­ian rule. While civil­ian politi­cians have ar­rived, their abil­ity to tackle the mul­ti­ple chal­lenges faced by Pak­istan and give the coun­try a new direc­tion re­mains in doubt.

To the ex­tent that ev­i­dence is avail­able, the lat­est cri­sis has yet again re­vealed Sharif's de­ter­mi­na­tion to shield his min­is­ters from re­spon­si­bil­ity. Though five of­fi­cials down the line were sus­pended as the cri­sis un­folded, the regime is yet to ac­cept po­lit­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity at a suf­fi­ciently high level. Given the mag­ni­tude of the cri­sis, its clear that the tur­moil could have eas­ily been avoided. Pak­istan's me­dia, now in the regime's fir­ing line, re­ported months ago that the coun­try's main oil im­port­ing com­pany was in se­ri­ous fi­nan­cial tur­moil. Even­tu­ally, the op­er­a­tions of the state-owned Pak­istan State Oil (PSO), the oil im­port­ing com­pany, came to a grind­ing halt when it failed to fi­nance fur­ther oil im­ports. Con­se­quently, Pak­ista­nis have suf­fered acutely

In­deed, an­other en­ergy cri­sis now ap­pears to be star­ing Pak­istan in the face, with re­cent re­ports of com­ing short­ages of fur­nace oil, which are likely to fur­ther jeop­ar­dise Pak­istan's al­ready strained abil­ity to gen­er­ate enough elec­tric­ity. In an en­er­gys­tarved coun­try where some ar­eas are al­ready with­out elec­tric­ity for 12 to 15 hours ev­ery day, a grim out­look for elec­tric­ity sup­ply is likely to just ag­gra­vate fur­ther.

Mean­while, for Sharif, the petrol cri­sis should have been an eye opener. But clearly, it has only been just the con­trary. The prime min­is­ter may be hop­ing for the tur­moil to tide over as petrol sup­plies im­prove and Pak­ista­nis re­turn to busi­ness as usual. And yet, that may not nec­es­sar­ily prove to be the case. The fail­ure to hold min­is­ters ac­count­able for their re­spec­tive port­fo­lios, raises some com­pelling ques­tions over the coun­try's fu­ture. When Sharif took charge in a his­toric po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion in 2013, the event was widely cel­e­brated as the com­ing of age of Pak­istan's democ­racy given that it was the first time ever that a demo­crat­i­cally-elected govern­ment com­pleted its ten­ure and handed power to an­other through the bal­lot box. And yet, sub­se­quent events have cast doubts over the com­ing of age ex­pec­ta­tions. Cre­den­tials un­der­mined Two ar­eas have bru­tally un­der­mined Sharif's cre­den­tials. First, his fail­ure to move de­ci­sively in carv­ing out a new frame­work for na­tional se­cu­rity has only come at the cost of more Pak­ista­nis who were tar­geted in ter­ror­ist at­tacks. Rather than give a clear go ahead to es­ca­late the fight against Tal­iban mil­i­tants, Sharif chose to ig­nore his scep­tics and pre­ferred to seek a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the mil­i­tants.

Con­se­quently, the el­e­ment of sur­prise was lost as the prime min­is­ter, stricken by a vis­i­ble sense of com­pla­cency, presided over meet­ing af­ter meet­ing to dis­cuss a half-baked peace process, which never took off. In the mean­time, Tal­iban mil­i­tants gained pre­cious time to or­gan­ise them­selves against the Pak­istan army. A fully­blown army cam­paign was fi­nally launched in sum­mer 2014 af­ter a Tal­iban at­tack on Pak­istan's big­gest in­ter­na­tional air­port in Karachi, high- lighted the rapidly build­ing threat. In De­cem­ber 2014, a Tal­iban at­tack on a school in Pe­shawar re­sulted in about 150 lives be­ing lost, most of them be­ing school­child­ren. Equally im­por­tant how­ever, the at­tack clearly showed the fast-grow­ing ca­pac­ity of the Tal­iban to strike in­side Pak­istan's ur­ban ar­eas, mark­ing a sub­stan­tial es­ca­la­tion in the coun­try's in­ter­nal con­flict.

At the same time, Sharif and his com­pa­tri­ots have clearly failed in manag­ing Pak­istan's wors­en­ing eco­nomic chal­lenge. The fuel short­ages of the past week have only high­lighted this gap. How­ever, there are no vis­i­ble signs of pre­cious lessons hav­ing been learnt from this lat­est catas­tro­phe. Be­hind an­other sorry week for Pak­istan's mass pop­u­la­tion, lies a longish tale of of­fi­cial com­pla­cency. In its 18 months since com­ing to power, Sharif's govern­ment has pur­sued one mega project af­ter an­other, cen­tred mostly around Pak­istan's travel com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­works. Projects worth bil­lions of ru­pees de­voted to fancy bus, train and road links have driven such ini­tia­tives, though a large chunk of Pak­ista­nis live in ab­ject poverty.

Mean­while, this pe­riod has co­in­cided with clear signs of a col­lapse of Pak­istan's agri­cul­tural econ­omy - a sec­tor that serves as the life­line for al­most 60 per cent of the coun­try's pop­u­la­tion. Isn't it time for Pak­ista­nis across the grass roots to reach a log­i­cal con­clu­sion - that Pak­istan's demo­cratic jour­ney is be­ing squan­dered with a com­bi­na­tion of grow­ing in­se­cu­rity and ris­ing eco­nomic malaise.

Farhan Bokhari is a Pak­istan-based com­men­ta­tor who writes on po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic mat­ters.

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