Monday, January 28, 2008

A Hollow Political Economy?

PRESIDENT Pervez Musharraf’s promise to a gathering of businessmen in Karachi for coming down heavy on the ‘miscreants’ planning to disrupt next month’s parliamentary elections, yet again carries a hollow ring.

At a time when the poorest of the poor have recently braved an atta shortage crisis, compounding the quality of their lives beyond the electricity shortages and mounting inflation, the challenge to the economy comes significantly more from its questionable handling by the government rather than the fallout from the mounting political challenge.

Mr Musharraf, in charge of Pakistan for more than eight years, appears eager to reassure nervous investors of his determination to ensure relative stability during a potentially turbulent election period.

It is difficult to predict exactly what emerges from a likely controversial national election, with opposition politicians already questioning the neutrality of the process, not to forget the neutrality of the present-day caretaker regime and the president’s own position.Elections taking place not just after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination but indeed also after its chaotic fallout and the bloody violence following her tragic departure, will indeed be a high-risk game.

Mr Musharraf’s decision to open front after front since making the then Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry ‘non-functional’ in March, has only demolished his once established image of being politically above board and well-meaning. History has demonstrated time and again that the moral high ground once lost by a leader is seldom regained, unlike the possible reversal of territorial loss.

It is all too easy to describe the violence after Ms Bhutto’s death as nothing more than an emotional and frenzied response by angry demonstrators to a highly tragic event. Another way of looking at what instigated this violence may well be exactly what lies behind Pakistan’s increasing propensity for instability, fuelled by the way the economy has progressed in recent years.

Pundits in high places of economic thinking such as the mighty ministry of finance in Islamabad, may well be all too eager to claim success for overseeing a so-called bold economic recovery. Parameters such as rising liquid currency reserves and mounting economic growth rates have often been cited as supporting evidence. Added evidence has been drawn from quarters such as the privatisation ministry to reinforce the success story. It is undoubtedly true that there are more visible symbols of affluence in Pakistan today, ranging from many more luxury cars — including a few Rolls-Royce — to the large-scale proliferation of mobile cellular phones.

But anecdotal evidence suggests a number of equally profound gaps in this widely touted economic success story, with alarming linkages to Pakistan’s future political outlook. If the economic growth trends were ever calculated for individual provinces and districts within those provincial bounds, there is a good chance that parts of Punjab could emerge as the land of high hope and success against the rest of the country — with the possible exception of Karachi — being areas of despair, disorder and above all shrinking economic opportunities.

Another way of looking at this distorted picture may well be the number of those who remain below the poverty line. Even if the government’s estimates, which are not accepted by independent pundits, are taken for the record, at least a quarter of Pakistan’s population of at least 165 million live below the poverty line. The figure of more than 40 million Pakistanis living below the poverty line exceeds the size of the entire population of a number of countries around the world.

Faced with this distorted pattern of economic development, both across regions and among classes, it is not surprising that the worst manifestations of political turmoil of the kind seen recently in Pakistan, have taken place in the country’s non-Punjab regions, essentially the NWFP where militancy has spread to the settled regions, Balochistan where in the aftermath of Nawab Akbar Bugti’s killing it remains a recurring trend, and now, after Ms Bhutto’s assassination, the bloody violence in the interior parts of Sindh.

By contrast, it is not surprising that Punjab — the visibly fastest growing province of Pakistan — is also home to the largest community of pro-Musharraf politicians from the PML-Q.

The pattern of recurring violence seen in Pakistan recently underlines a fundamental and obvious point. People who do not see hope for a better future may be relatively more prone to joining waves of unrest and disorder.

In spite of the obvious connect between politics and Pakistan’s future economic challenges, there may be no immediate economic solutions to dealing with this profoundly complex issue. The effect of a set of economic choices followed over eight years under President Musharraf’s rule, cannot be undone in the potentially turbulent weeks or even months that lie ahead for Pakistan.

Without delicate handling, an election that lacks credibility will immediately evoke a possibly violent public response from Pakistan’s opposition leaders including some who would be encouraged to see more public response to their cause after the recent unrest in the country. If the government moves ahead in dealing a crushing blow to violent unrest as promised by President Musharraf, there is no guarantee that the situation will not aggravate further.

In the short term, the best option for the government must be all about setting the pace for a political transition which is fair, neutral, above board and, above all, free of bias in favour or against any individual or political group.

With official credibility already in tatters, it is difficult to imagine how President Musharraf can become a neutral arbiter of Pakistan’s national affairs, following a year in which his political battles appear to have primarily been about saving his own career as well as his self-created ruling order. Once the dust settles after the polls, a new Pakistani regime will have to quickly undo some of the worst legacies of economic policies in recent years. Diverting economic and developmental resources away from Punjab towards Pakistan’s impoverished regions may well be a key priority, all for the sake of preserving, protecting and promoting the cause of national unity.

In contrast to Pakistan’s economic picture under President Musharraf’s rule which has received a lift from US-led generous western support, there are huge gaps in the country’s economic structure. Areas such as the number of income taxpayers, staggering at less than one per cent of the population, say much about the failure to undertake structural reforms with long-term benefits.

Other distortions include the controversy surrounding public services such as government-owned hospitals and schools which present a pathetic picture which remains largely unchanged from the days preceding Mr Musharraf’s rule. Economic recovery may have indeed taken place if statistical evidence is taken as the guide. But the recovery is far from real when judged against the quality of life for average Pakistanis, especially those living in areas outside the economic heartland. The recent riots are just one of the many eye-openers to prove the point.

(Courtesy DAWN, Opinion, Jan 28th)

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