ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s government has become the first in the country’s history to complete a full term in office, but key achievements have been overshadowed by mismanagement, economic decline and worsening security.
When the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won the 2008 elections on a wave of national grief over the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, few imagined her widower would prove such an adept, agile and long-standing president.
Yet Asif Ali Zardari, belittled for years as an ill-educated playboy who spent 11 years in prison over corruption allegations despite never being charged, has managed to achieve what eluded all previous civilian rulers in Pakistan.
Thus, a civilian government has completed a full five-year term in office for the first time and will be handing over power to another elected government in a country that has seen three bloodless military coups and four military rulers in its short lifetime.
Helped by the army chief of staff’s determination to keep to the sidelines and the opposition’s unwillingness to force early elections, Zardari’s wheeler-dealer ability has been crucial to keeping his government together.
Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, who will maintain his position for now, also hailed the peaceful transition as a success for the Pakistan People’s Party. “We have strengthened the foundations of democracy to such an extent that no one will be able to harm democracy in future,” Ashraf said during a televised address to the nation Saturday.
Political analyst Jaffer Ahmed, director of the Pakistan Studies department at Karachi University, said Zardari’s record has been mixed at best, with his greatest asset the pragmatism needed to stay the course.
In 2010, Zardari relinquished much of his power to the prime minister, rolling back decades of meddling by military rulers in an effort to institutionalize parliamentary democracy. His government sought to devolve powers to the provinces and introduced reforms that will for the first time allow parties to contest elections in the tribal belt, a den of Taliban and al-Qaida militants under only semigovernment control.
Parliament, meanwhile, has passed more legislation than any of its predecessors. “Even more significant is Parliament’s record of enacting a raft of legislation empowering women,” Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director at Human Rights Watch, said of measures that include laws against domestic violence and sexual harassment.
But those achievements aside, the past five years have been marked by extraordinarily bad governance. Terrorist attacks and insecurity have increased, with shootings and bomb attacks now a daily reality.
Apart from a watershed military operation that pushed Taliban insurgents out of the Swat Valley in 2009, the government has been unable or unwilling to crack down on the plethora of Islamist militant networks blamed for violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.
Pakistan has hosted no international cricket matches, the national obsession, since gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan team in March 2009. Religious violence has reached dizzying levels, with the Shiite Muslim minority bearing the brunt.
Nothing was done to resolve a chronic energy crisis or introduce desperately needed tax reforms, and ministers have been tainted by accusations of appalling corruption.
After the elections, Pakistan is expected to have little option but to seek another bailout package from the International Monetary Fund given its yawning budget deficit, estimated at 7 percent by independent experts.
The government was also locked in a damaging power struggle with the judiciary, which last June sacked the prime minister for refusing to ask Switzerland to reopen corruption cases against Zardari.
In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, warned of the challenges as Pakistan heads into its first democratic transition of power in history. The next government must consolidate democratic institutionalization, strengthen civilian control over the military, forge consensus among coalition partners and seek economic reforms against the wishes of itself and its constituents, she said.