ISLAMABAD — Leaders of some of Pakistan’s opposition parties took no time in boycotting a live broadcast on national television this week upon news of a crackdown on prodemocracy activists.
For those outside Pakistan, the boycott is not exactly exciting news. But for Pakistanis, it’s a significant event since defiant politicians rarely have the opportunity to go on television, and state-controlled TV at that, to present their views. Their willingness to forgo the opportunity suggests their growing displeasure with Pakistan’s military regime, which is accused of arresting hundreds of political activists in this week’s swoop.
In the 18 months since Gen. Pervez Musharraf came to power, Pakistan’s exposure to democratic values has taken two paths. On the one hand, there’s greater tolerance toward dissent, most visible in the appearance of members of the political opposition on TV, and the promise to revert to civilian rule by October next year. But there are limits to the generals’ tolerance. Pakistanis do not yet have the opportunity to hold public meetings to press for demands such as a revival of democracy.
As a result, few are eager to examine Pakistan’s political outlook. But the country’s politics are important, not just for internal stability, but also in view of their relevance to outside interests. Pakistan, South Asia’s second-largest country, possesser of nuclear knowhow, gives no comfort to outsiders who are keen to see it remain stable and peaceful.
The fact that Pakistan and India — the other nuclear-capable South Asian country — are still locked in a simmering dispute over the division of the Himalayan state of Kashmir, gives little room for comfort. To some, an undemocratic Pakistan adds to the risks over regional security, believing as they do that undemocratic countries are more prone to violence than a democratic ones.
However, Pakistan’s outlook needs to be examined within the context of three important factors, and this view provides a sharp contrast to those expecting a revival of democratic institutions.
First, moves to restrain public protests, even peaceful ones, is bound to be counter-productive. The decision by Musharraf to curb this week’s protests may have brought short-term dividends by successfully restraining the demonstrations, but restraint is certain to give way to growing defiance. There are few recent examples of an un-elected regime being able to successfully clamp down on its opponents indefinitely.
Pakistan suffers from the added problem of being in the spotlight due to continued international interest in its future, a product of its nuclear status. Soon the generals will face growing international concern over human rights, unless a greater degree of freedom is given to dissenting individuals and political groups.
Second, Pakistan’s main challenge is the reform its deeply troubled economy. A country with a moribund economy and a large external debt can hardly choose to ignore some of the most pressing economic reforms. These include a complete revamp of government-owned companies, which are largely in the red and therefore impose a burden on the government budget. In addition, the conflict with India has meant that Pakistan spends more than a quarter of its budget on its military.
This year, there’s the added problem of months of drought, which has hurt the agricultural sector. Foreign investment is slack: There was less than $500 million in the last year. With more political dissent, the prospects for more foreign investment will diminish.
In the end, Pakistan is likely to remain in a vicious circle in which low economic growth will spur political disenchantment, which will in turn affect the country’s economic performance. To avoid this, Pakistan must enact some long overdue economic reforms to provide a foundation for long-term stability.
Finally, Pakistan needs international help to overcome some of its most difficult problems, especially the management of its economic challenges. But international sentiment toward the country remains lukewarm as a result of concerns over Pakistan’s close relationship with the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan is the only country to maintain an embassy in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Pakistani officials, including Musharraf, argue that Pakistan can not afford to turn against Afghanistan, with which it shares a long border. Fresh tension with the Taliban could spur the government in Kabul to support hardline Islamic groups in Pakistan in their agitation against Islamabad.
But Pakistan’s choices have become increasingly limited in the wake of the Taliban’s decision to destroy all of Afghanistan’s statues from its pre-Islamic era. Pakistan’s challenge is to express its displeasure with the Taliban without turning the Afghan leadership against Islamabad. It will be difficult.
But if Pakistan does not take a tougher line against the Taliban, there’s every possibility that Islamabad will be seen as a country that defies the world to maintain a controversial friendship with its neighbor. That is bound to hurt Pakistan — even if the country begins a more aggressive attempt to restore democracy.
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