Pakistan’s incoming government face some major challenges
Pakistan will have a new government by the end of this month. Given rising public expectations, it will face multiple challenges from the word go.
The party manifestos announced so far are all very ambitious. However, to achieve such lofty goals, the new government will need considerable resources. To fix the struggling public-health and education sectors, for example, it will need to invest in new buildings, equipment and personnel. This is hugely important in a country where a large number of children do not attend school. With a turbulent fiscal situation and low foreign-exchange reserves, an immediate overhaul of the social sector might not be possible.
Pakistan is a polarized society. Income disparities have increased due to inflation and a depreciating currency. The central-provincial relationship had improved since the provinces were given greater autonomy and a bigger share of federal revenues, but this also meant that some federal institutions and departments faced reduced budgets. This is not an ideal situation for a country with hostile borders and pockets of extremists. The way regular and paramilitary Pakistani forces have tackled the internal and external challenges is commendable. The new government will have to tackle the root causes of extremism; the federal government needs more resources and deft managers to treat those root causes effectively.
Water and energy are issues of strategic importance to the economy. No nation can be fully sovereign unless it masters the art of living within its own means. In Pakistani agriculture, 54 million acres are cultivated, the bulk of those using artificial irrigation. An additional 20 million acres could be cultivated if more water was available. Because the Indus water system is dependent on rain and the melting of glaciers, Pakistan has too much water in the summer and too little during winter. This calls for the construction of additional dams and reservoirs for water storage, and the judicious use of irrigation. Enough water for more than 20 million acres of fields flows into the Arabian Sea each year. If this was used for agriculture, through the construction of additional storage capacity, Pakistan could emerge as regional bread basket.
The new government will have to tackle the root causes of extremism; the federal government needs more resources and deft managers to treat those root causes effectively.
A related problem is that of electricity shortages. Pakistan has enough installed capacity to meet its current power needs. The problem lies in poor maintenance of thermal power stations and inefficient transmission lines. Hydro electricity is not only a cheaper option, it is also cleaner as there are no carbon emissions. Pakistan has a huge potential here because of the fast-flowing rivers in the mountain areas. The next government must immediately start work on at least two dams, as the necessary feasibility studies are already complete. Without cheaper and abundant power, Pakistan will not be able to increase its exports. The new government will have to generate additional funds locally or internationally to build these dams.
As for foreign policy, ensuring consistent working relations with India and Afghanistan will be a challenge for the incoming government. Peaceful borders are essential for robust and enduring economic growth. Due to its ideal location, Pakistan should become a busy energy and trade corridor in not-too-distant future. Trade routes and energy pipelines could run north-south and east-west. The under-construction China-Pakistan Economic Corridor could be replicated by an Indo-Pakistan Economic Corridor connecting South Asia with Central Asia and Russia. This would provide India and Afghanistan with incentives to ensure enduring peace with Pakistan. Current Indo-Pakistan trade volume is $7 billion, the bulk of which passes through a third country. It is estimated that if the two countries start trading directly and remove non-tariff barriers, bilateral trade would immediately soar to $20 billion. It would also create numerous jobs on both sides of the border.
Could the change of government in Islamabad affect its policy toward the Middle East? My reply would be a firm no. Over the past 70 years, Pakistan has had both civilian and military governments. During civilian rule, a number of political parties have been in power. During all of this, Pakistan’s policy towards Middle Eastern countries has consistently remained friendly and co-operative. Pakistan’s espousal of Palestinian rights in international forums is well known. This consistent stance is based on the popular view in Pakistan, which no government could ignore. The people of Pakistan firmly believe that standing shoulder to shoulder with their Arab brothers is an irrevocable decision that promotes peace and fortifies security.
Internationally, Pakistan is a highly misunderstood country. It has made tangible sacrifices, both in men and material, in its fight against terrorism, yet those sacrifices have not been fully appreciated abroad. The next government will have to work hard to fix this image problem. Ultimately, internal cohesion and vigor translate into a successful foreign policy.
- Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers, and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst. Twitter: @hafiz_javed