Political tension continues to distract Pakistan and exacerbate its woes

By Eurasia Group analyst Maria Kuusisto Pakistan is experiencing multiple crises. First, the political system remains unstable. The civilian government is fragile, and facing a range of internal and external pressures that are undermining its effectiveness. Second, the security situation is deteriorating. The Taliban is expanding its influence in the northwestern tribal belt and carrying ...

By , the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media.
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582180_090813_897566915.jpg

By Eurasia Group analyst Maria Kuusisto

Pakistan is experiencing multiple crises. First, the political system remains unstable. The civilian government is fragile, and facing a range of internal and external pressures that are undermining its effectiveness. Second, the security situation is deteriorating. The Taliban is expanding its influence in the northwestern tribal belt and carrying out frequent terrorist attacks in the large cities, causing fear among the population. Third, the economic outlook is not showing any signs of improvement. While Pakistan's foreign exchange situation has improved, its GDP growth has declined to 2 percent and the key manufacturing and textile sectors are in recession, leading to increased unemployment and poverty. To make things worse, the country is facing a power supply and demand gap of some 4,000 megawatts, hindering economic activity and spurring popular discontent.

After the 2007 political crisis, a civilian government returned to Pakistan. The country's politics have long been dominated by two main parties: the left-leaning Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by President Asif Ali Zardari and the conservative Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. These parties have a history of intense, highly personalized political rivalry that dates back to the 1990s. The PPP won a landslide victory in the February 2008 elections, largely because of popular sympathy for the party after popular PPP leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007. This election result paved the way for a PPP-led coalition government, including the PML-N. After a few months of cooperation, however, the PML-N resigned due to differences over democratic reforms.

By Eurasia Group analyst Maria Kuusisto

Pakistan is experiencing multiple crises. First, the political system remains unstable. The civilian government is fragile, and facing a range of internal and external pressures that are undermining its effectiveness. Second, the security situation is deteriorating. The Taliban is expanding its influence in the northwestern tribal belt and carrying out frequent terrorist attacks in the large cities, causing fear among the population. Third, the economic outlook is not showing any signs of improvement. While Pakistan’s foreign exchange situation has improved, its GDP growth has declined to 2 percent and the key manufacturing and textile sectors are in recession, leading to increased unemployment and poverty. To make things worse, the country is facing a power supply and demand gap of some 4,000 megawatts, hindering economic activity and spurring popular discontent.

After the 2007 political crisis, a civilian government returned to Pakistan. The country’s politics have long been dominated by two main parties: the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by President Asif Ali Zardari and the conservative Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. These parties have a history of intense, highly personalized political rivalry that dates back to the 1990s. The PPP won a landslide victory in the February 2008 elections, largely because of popular sympathy for the party after popular PPP leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007. This election result paved the way for a PPP-led coalition government, including the PML-N. After a few months of cooperation, however, the PML-N resigned due to differences over democratic reforms.

Since then, the PML-N has become an increasingly powerful opposition force. While the PPP is widely perceived as having failed to address the multiple crises facing the country, the PML-N is seen as being more in touch with people’s problems, increasing its popularity. A major turning point was the March pro-democracy campaign sponsored by Sharif, which led to the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The PML-N is hoping to carefully manage a transition in civilian politics — while preventing the military from intervening — and prepare for early elections. It is taking up highly populist issues, forming alliances, and delivering relatively effective governance in Punjab, where it has a provincial government. Early elections are likely to lead to a PML-N-led coalition government.

Meanwhile, the US is trying to broker a power-sharing deal between the PPP and PML-N. The Obama administration has formed a good working relationship with Zardari and the PPP-led government. It is concerned about the prospect of early elections and related political instability, which risk undermining Pakistan’s fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Moreover, it is concerned about PML-N’s political agenda, which is highly populist, less accommodating toward Washington, and more sympathetic to conservative religious forces. The Obama administration hopes that a power-sharing deal would lead to a national government, including the PML-N, and prolong the life expectancy of the current political set-up.

The United States is unlikely to succeed in its brokering efforts. In 2007, Washington tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to broker a similar power-sharing deal between Bhutto and former president General Pervez Musharraf. In this case, the PML-N has little interest in a power-sharing deal, particularly if Zardari remains the most powerful person in the political arrangement. Such a deal would undermine PML-N’s popularity and long-term political prospects. Many Pakistanis would view such a deal as a sell-out for short-term political gain. They would also make PML-N liable for the perceived failing policies of the government. For its part, the PML-N has little trust in PPP’s willingness or ability to meet its end of the bargain. That said, the PML-N is likely to continue talks about a potential deal because it needs to accommodate the United States and because it needs more time to prepare the ground for early elections. The likely collapse of talks also will eventually provide the PML-N with a convenient excuse to mobilize opposition against the PPP.

The continuing political tension in Pakistan undermines the government’s ability to tackle the country’s multiple crises. On the political front, the government needs to implement constitutional reforms to strengthen democracy and civilian institutions. On the security front, it needs to shift from carrying out counterterrorism military operations to delivering better governance (eg, integrating the tribal belt into the political and institutional mainstream). On the economic front, the government needs to improve domestic revenue collection — instead of relying on international assistance — and stimulate the economy through well-channeled incentives to key sectors and social protection schemes. If the government fails to tackle these crises, it risks social unrest and the increased influence of conservative political and social forces.

AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer

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