The challenges of governance and democracy in Pakistan

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By Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi
The July 2018 general election and installation of the newly elected federal and provincial governments in August boosted the prospects of democracy in Pakistan. This was the fourth general election since 2002, when General Pervez Musharraf held carefully managed elections to civilianize his military rule by installing an elected government. The subsequent polls in February 2008 and May 2013 brought in purely political governments. On all of these occasions political power shifted from one set of political leaders to another.

The 2018 elections reinforced these democratic trends, as Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf for the first time won seats in all four provinces. It assumed power at the federal level, another first for PTI, in addition to setting up governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, and sharing power in Balochistan. Though other parties complained that the elections were rigged, most independent observers described the elections as orderly, peaceful and fair. The failure of the electronic Result Transmission System delayed the announcement of the result but there is no concrete evidence to suggest that this was a deliberate attempt to manipulate the outcome.

Elections are integral to the democratic process but that is not the only requirement for democracy. The legitimacy of elections has to be supplemented by performance legitimacy in terms of governance and political management on the part of the government, and a continuing observance of tolerance in society. Pakistan falters on these counts. The competing political interests have not fully imbibed the democratic culture and they often display social and religious intolerance.

We have observed over the years that if democratic institutions and processes do not deliver an outcome of one’s choice, there is a tendency to question the legitimacy of the democratic process. In the case of the 2018 vote, a number of political parties talked about election rigging in the constituencies where they lost — but they did not question the results where they won.

The second criterion on which to judge the quality of democracy is the degree to which the political elite in general, and the government in particular, can continue to claim the voluntary loyalty of the people. This is possible if the elected government successfully delivers basic services such as education, health care, clean drinking water, and employment opportunities for the nation’s youth. Currently, the quality of these services delivered by a succession of governments has ranged from satisfactory to poor. There are areas in which the state is unable to provide satisfactory education and health-care facilities. The new PTI federal government is working on plans to address these issues. Hopefully, their promises to work for the betterment of the common people will start to bear fruit in six to eight months. If they fail to do so, disappointment and political alienation will begin to set in among the common people.

The third challenge for the new government relates to the fact that it has inherited a troubled economy. The problems include a current-account deficit, a trade imbalance to the disadvantage of Pakistan, a budget deficit, tax collection issues, and international and domestic debts. Pakistan is stuck in such a debt trap that it will find it difficult to manage it unless thoughtful solutions are developed. This is a difficult but not impossible task. Some state institutions — such as the steel mill, Pakistan’s national airlines and railways, and projects such as the new transport system introduced by the previous Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government in Lahore, Multan and Rawalpindi-Islamabad — have become major financial drains on the country. How can these be made financially viable?

Another economy-related issue pertains to the “youth bulge.” More than 60 percent of Pakistan’s population is under the age of 35. Those in the 18-to-30 age range aspire to becoming part of the political and economic system by seeking gainful employment. However, the economy is currently not in a position to accommodate these youths, who face despair and instead seek to leave the country — by legal and illegal means.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government recognizes these problems and promises to address the challenges effectively. In its first month of governance, it has made several ambitious announcements of plans for a reduction of government expenses, the collection of domestic revenue, improvements to education and health-care facilities, and the provision of housing for the poor and job opportunities based on merit.

This is a tall order. The performance of the government on these issues will determine the long-term political future of the new ruling party — and whether or not the people’s attachment and engagement with the democratic system is sustainable.

(Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi is a political analyst in Pakistan. Twitter: @har132har)