ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s domestic situation is becoming increasingly precarious. Indeed, serious questions are being raised as to whether the country can survive in its present form.
Such questions stem from a growing fear that Islamist groups might once again make a serious bid to capture the levers of power in the country. If that is not possible because of the presence of a large and disciplined military, the Islamic fundamentalists might attempt to carve out some space for themselves in which to establish a separate system of governance more fully aligned with what they view as the principles of their religion.
Islamist groups’ previous attempt to create such a space was successfully countered by the military in 2009, when it drove insurgent forces from the sensitive district of Swat and the tribal agency of South Waziristan.
Today, however, Pakistan’s military may not be prepared to act with the force and conviction it showed last time. Its resolve to counter the Islamists’ growing influence has been weakened by two unfortunate events: the recent assassination of Salman Tasser, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, and the deaths last month of two young men allegedly at the hands of an American official named Raymond Davis.
Taseer’s murder led to large public displays of support for the alleged assassin on the grounds that he had taken the life of a politician who had questioned the content of the “Hudood ordinances.” These laws, originally promulgated by the British in colonial India and made more Draconian by a succession of Pakistani administrations, make any comment considered to be disrespectful toward Islam or the prophet Muhammad an offense punishable by death.
A Christian woman who was alleged to have made such a disparaging comment was the latest target of the ordinances. Taseer had given his word that he would not allow the woman’s death sentence to be carried out.
The Davis case further complicated Pakistan’s relations with the United States, which were already strained because of the military’s reluctance to move into North Waziristan — a mini-state within Pakistan from which the Taliban have launched operations in Afghanistan against U.S. forces. With the Pakistani street now demanding action against the “murderer” of two young men in Lahore, it was unlikely that the military would move in any way that could be seen as a response to pressure from the Obama administration.
Even before Pakistan’s ruling elite was shaken by the killings in Pakistan’s streets and the turmoil in Tunisia and Egypt, it had begun to plan measures aimed at mollifying an increasingly restive citizenry. Moreover, several senior members of President Asif Ali Zardari’s government have concluded that the developments in Tunisia and Egypt could not be replicated in Pakistan.
“Our institutions are working and democracy is functional,” Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told members of the Western press. He could have added that the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League, was content to let him govern until the country went back to the polls sometime in late 2012 or early 2013. There were also clear indications that the military was not inclined to venture into politics once again, as it has done many times in the past.
But Gilani was not entirely unruffled. As Hosni Mubarak’s Egyptian regime unraveled, Gilani decided to call for the resignation of his entire Cabinet. Led by Senior Minister Amin Fahim from the province of Sindh, all Cabinet members submitted their resignations to the prime minister on Feb. 4.
On the same day, the Central Executive Committee of the Pakistan People’s Party “authorized the prime minister to reappoint a smaller Cabinet with fewer ministers enjoying reputation of integrity, competence, and efficiency.” The final move in that direction came on February 9, when, at a farewell lunch for his large Cabinet, Gilani sent his ministers packing. A new, smaller Cabinet was sworn in two days later.
Gilani’s step was taken in response not only to the developments in the Middle East, but also in recognition of how little the return to democracy has done for Pakistan’s citizens. Officials are also aware that a change in the Cabinet will be seen as mere window dressing unless people are shown that the government has a plan to rescue the economy from collapse and alleviate the burdens faced by ordinary people.
Indeed, Pakistan’s rate of economic growth is the slowest on the South Asian mainland — one-half that of Bangladesh and one-third that of India. A sharp increase in the prices of essential commodities means that the real income of the bottom 60 percent of the population has declined.
Sluggish economic activity has increased the rate of urban unemployment to an estimated 34 percent of the labor force. While a functioning democratic system and a vibrant media may have provided outlets for people to vent their frustration with the state of the economy and the quality of governance, the political elite now recognizes that many ingredients in the Pakistani situation were present in those Middle Eastern countries where street politics have reached the boiling point.
The message is clear: democracy that does not deliver tangible benefits will not prevent Pakistan’s people from demanding radical change. The question is whether the political class has the wherewithal to act accordingly.
Shahid Javed Burki, former finance minister of Pakistan and vice president of the World Bank, is currently chairman of the Institute of Public Policy, Lahore. © 2011 Project Syndicate