Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
LAHORE: On February 18, Pakistanis voted against the regime of Pervez Musharraf. For more than eight years the now retired general has ruled the country with an iron fist, brooking no dissent. But when push came to shove, the Pakistani people made it clear that they would rather their country be ruled by politicians - however flawed - than an army general dancing to Washington's tune.
In the immediate aftermath of the polls, the victors - the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of late Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif, the man Musharraf ousted in his October 1999 coup - have called on Musharraf to resign. But the man who has been a Bush administration favourite is clinging on for dear life, and so long as he does, a smooth transition to democracy is unlikely.
It is perhaps difficult for observers outside Pakistan to actually understand the depth of the crisis that Musharraf's government faced in the lead-up to the polls. Even now, the worsening security situation is not the biggest problem that the regime is up against. The vote against the incumbent regime in fact was the fallout of an acute economic crisis that has beset the country.
Over the past few weeks, Pakistanis have been suffering from prolonged power outages, a major reduction in the supply of gas, and a dramatic shortage of wheat flour. The situation reached crisis-like proportions about two weeks before February 18 and while things have not deteriorated further, they have not got much better either.
This is ironic given that the regime's most celebrated success has been the 'economic revival' that it has engineered. Since October 1999 the government has initiated a series of economic 'reform' measures, which have met with the approval of the IMF and World Bank. The regime has been rewarded, particularly after the September 11 attacks in America, with massive inflows of financial assistance.
In subsequent years, foreign exchange reserves reached record levels, export earnings improved and growth rates increased to the point that Pakistan's economy was said to be the second fastest growing economy in Asia, second only to China. However, very little structural change has taken place beneath the surface. There has been no asset redistribution, the tax net has remained woefully small, and foreign investment has been limited to non-employment generating sectors such as real estate, telecommunications and the stock market.
Pakistan's has always been an aid-dependent economy that looks a lot more robust than it actually is when the aid is flowing in. In recent times, the underlying weaknesses of the regime's economic 'miracle' have become painfully apparent. There is not enough electricity and gas to meet the burgeoning demand. The need to generate foreign exchange through wheat exports has given rise to a bizarre situation in which a record bumper crop has proved insufficient in meeting internal demand.
Development spending is being cut as means of creating fiscal space. The list could go on. With the support of western governments under the guise of prosecuting the so-called 'war on terror', the regime has succeeded in suppressing political challenges to it, most obviously by dismissing activist supreme court judges and arresting thousands of democracy-demanding lawyers and political activists.
The electorate has taken revenge for these deeply unpopular measures by voting Musharraf's clients out of power, but the imperative of the 'war on terror' is seemingly too acute for Musharraf's patrons in Washington to accept the people's mandate. Notwithstanding rhetoric to the contrary, the Bush administration has not played its cards in Pakistan well, or at least not well enough to win the hearts and minds of its people. The solution does not lie in dumping Musharraf and backing his successor - Pervez Kiyani - to the post of army chief. It lies in finally accepting that the Pakistani people are best equipped to decide how to address the problems that their country is beset with.
The election result should be seen as the culmination of a year-long struggle to dislodge the incumbent regime. Of course in most cases, voters reinstated many who have been in power before and in doing so have thrown down the gauntlet to the two big parties, the PPP and the PML-N. On the one hand the election result is, in many ways, a mandate for them to really take on the military. If, instead, they buckle to the demands of the army - and the United States - the many possible gains from the politicisation that has taken place over the past year will be lost.
On the other hand, serious policy changes are necessary if the coalition wants to avoid being swept away by a tidal wave of anti-government sentiment in the way that the Musharraf regime has. For example, free market orthodoxy of the kind championed by the Musharraf government is likely to subject working people to even more acute hardship whilst not necessarily achieving macroeconomic stability.
The PPP and PML-N are now immersed in a battle to maintain the goodwill they have regained by virtue of their stance against a deeply unpopular military regime. The initial period will be crucial, and the international community would do well to honour the wishes of the Pakistani people and stop backing Musharraf and the policies that have taken Pakistan to the brink of implosion.
The writer teaches colonial history and political economy at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.