How will Pakistan’s new government fare in the regional arena?

How will Pakistan’s new government fare in the regional arena?

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Whatever meanings and implications one draws from Pakistan’s recent elections, the hard political fact is that the weight of the establishment is behind the results, and it will oversee that stability and order prevails by continuing to play a supportive role behind the scenes.

Pakistan’s role in regional geopolitics, peace and war and the shaping of new alignments, will continue to largely be determined by its powerful army, as it has in the past- except now with a dependent and loyal political facade. There may not be much room for the civilian government in matters of defense, strategy and determining geopolitical choices. To survive, Pakistan’s new Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N) government led by PM Shahbaz Sharif will depend on the support of coalition partners, and more importantly, the country’s powerful military establishment.

 Even well before the February elections this year, a clear line in economic matters had already been drawn by two initiatives— the establishment of the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) and the allotment of tens of thousands of hectares of public land in the provinces to the military for corporate farming. The SIFC is a higher body over and above all other bureaucratic departments handling investment in Pakistan and has the institutionalized membership of the armed forces.

The regional focus will be generally on attracting foreign direct investment in agriculture and industry and the government of Prime Minister Sharif will be looking toward Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

The economic conditions of Pakistan are linked with its geopolitical choices as much as they are with internal political arrangements.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

There is a reason for the military playing such a strong role in the SIFC and agricultural field for the first time. It is meant to ensure cutting loose the bureaucratic hurdles, and guaranteeing order, stability and continuity in policies. The main agenda of the establishment is economic revival and growth. But the fact of the matter is, until Pakistan delivers on structural economic reforms, including the power sector and the privatization of public entities, the economy cannot really get back on track.

Only with a double push from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the military can the new civilian government take politically unpalatable decisions, as it will be acutely sensitive to its popularity ratings, already questionable, further thinning out.

The economic conditions of Pakistan are linked with its geopolitical choices as much as they are with internal political arrangements.

In the emerging geopolitical configuration, Pakistan may not escape the necessity of staying within the Western camp, as conflict sharpens between Russia and its allies in the Middle East on one side and the US and its allies in the region. In this respect, Pakistan’s policy will essentially be aligned with Saudia Arabia. Pakistan’s dependence on the region for overseas workers’ remittances and the prospects of investments will keep its traditional foreign policy orientation in place.

The big challenge it may face is in maintaining a delicate but precarious balance between its deep strategic ties and staying with the Western bloc. At the moment, events have not driven Pakistan into any real tight corner. It is still comfortable, as China continues to straddle between the West and Russia without making any tilt either, and attempting to carve a place out for itself in the hierarchy of the international power structure.

Pakistan’s choices toward India and Afghanistan may require a paradigm shift for which neither itself nor the other two neighboring countries show much inclination. Until that happens, they may continue to play old games with a lot of negative consequences for Pakistan.

- Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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