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Halting steps: Government’s performance

March 16, 2013

WAS it worth it? Will the democratic milestone that is now within reach make up for five years of inept and corrupt rule? It is both unfortunate that Pakistanis are asking this question and thrilling that they finally have the chance to ask it. The many ways in which this government has let us down are painfully obvious. But this is only the second time the country has seen an elected party complete five years in office — though not without a change of prime minister — and it is on the verge of its very first democratic transition. A confluence of factors made this possible; it was a moment in time when the army chief, the chief justice and the opposition leader pushed hard but chose not to push too far, or at least not at the same time. But it was also the result of some smart political manoeuvring by the ruling party.

The government’s other accomplishment has been pushing through legislation that, in some cases on paper and in others in reality, has strengthened that democratic achievement. The 18th Amendment returned some much-abused presidential powers to the prime minister. It strengthened the federation through devolution and met the long-standing demand to rename NWFP, and the National Finance Commission Award supported these moves by sharing more resources with the provinces. Parliament, including the opposition, was incorporated into the process of selecting the Election Commission of Pakistan, the caretaker prime minister and, to some extent, superior court judges. Though its implementation remains unproven, legislation such as extending the Political Parties Act to Fata, partially reforming the Frontier Crimes Regulation and criminalising acid-throwing, sexual harassment and corporal punishment of children took notice of important human rights issues. But a nation cannot live on new laws and constitutional amendments, and a failing economy was one of this government’s most glaring failures. It may have inherited some poor decisions and been in power during a global economic crisis, but even that doesn’t excuse its stunning mismanagement. From pervasive corruption and patronage-based politics to a disastrous fiscal situation and failure to get a grip on the power sector, this government has overseen declining investment, periods of rapidly spiralling prices and a tumbling rupee. All of which has translated into increasing poverty, falling standards of living and an infrastructure that has lagged behind Pakistan’s growing population. And the resistance to IMF reforms has only landed us at the lender’s doorstep again, now in an even weaker bargaining position.

The other glaring failure was, of course, the inability to stem militant violence and the spread of intolerance. It was under this government that sectarian violence took on new, more dangerous and more widespread forms; unlikely suspects fell victim to blasphemy accusations; Karachi was held hostage to commercial, ethnic and political disputes; militants expanded their targets to include teenage girls, polio vaccinators and social workers; and missing people’s bodies were dumped in Balochistan. After initial attempts at defiance the government succumbed to the army’s dominance of military and intelligence affairs, which meant it was left with no control over military strategy regarding the Pakistani Taliban and their affiliates. Nor did it manage to cobble together enough of a political consensus on the issue. Instead, it stuck its head in the sand and chose to do nothing at all. The army continued to dominate foreign policy as well, which meant that the relationship with America and the normalisation of ties with India were bumpier than they needed to be.

So again, were these last few years, and the upcoming elections, worth it? There are reasons to believe this democratic transition will take place as expected, though hard to predict if it will set a lasting precedent. But if there is any hope the last five years can inspire, it is that Pakistan has finally taken a step forward in the long, hard process of building a democracy that will serve its people.