You are here

Pakistan elections: Implications for domestic and foreign policy

Sumita Kumar is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • May 13, 2013

    A clear mandate for the PML(N) will help the next government in Pakistan to manoeuvre the various minefields that await with greater surety. The PML(N) leadership may decide to call on the independents for support, rather than the PPPP and the PTI, which may help it avoid the compromises that a coalition government entails. To an extent the anti-incumbency factor may have worked against the PPPP, yet there will remain a doubt as to whether the PPPP would have performed better had it been allowed a level playing field during the election campaigning. On the other hand, the TTP has achieved its goal, given that selective targeting by it has obviously disabled the PPPP, the MQM and the ANP, from realising their full potential, with the ANP having been routed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The PTI has made strong inroads in KP and is expected to head the provincial government.

    The terror spread by the TTP in the run up to the elections in its attempts to deny secular parties space to function, and to disrupt the poll process, indicate the need for urgent action against such groups. The PML-N is against the use of force and prefers long-term measures in the economic, social, administrative and political spheres to tackle the roots of the problem. Political negotiations have not worked in the past. Nawaz Sharif, since the beginning of his political career, espoused conservative Islamic ideals. During his first term as PM, he introduced the Shariah Ordinance and during his second term as Prime Minister he tried to bring about an amendment to the Constitution (15th Amendment) which would entail supremacy of the Quran and Sunnah. His unstated alliance with religious militant elements will perhaps make him prefer an accommodative approach. With the PTI heading the provincial government in KP, and also being supportive of dialogue and winning the hearts and minds approach, a non-military approach may be favoured, but this will come into conflict with the army’s preferred approach. The links of the religious right leaning PML-N and the PTI with radical elements may not allow them enough flexibility. It will be important to bring the law and order situation under control so that other critical governance issues can be addressed.

    Notwithstanding a stressful relationship with the military in the last fifteen years, as an elected prime minister of the country, Nawaz Sharif has no option but to work with the army and vice versa. The army will not be inclined to wrest power from the political leadership, given its loss of credibility internationally and the humungous problems faced by the country, of which it would not like to have the onus.

    Nawaz Sharif has been a proponent of privatisation and economic liberalisation and took steps to improve the country’s infrastructure during his tenure as PM. Now he is going to have to focus on improving the structural problems within the economy. The economy has been in a state of crisis for the last few years with declining GDP growth, and a high budgetary deficit which has led to decreased spending on infrastructure and healthcare. Huge subsidies doled out to public sector undertakings have led to a growing deficit, and the need to fund the budgetary deficit through external financing has created problems. In the sectoral breakup of GDP over the last few decades, significant contribution has shifted from agriculture to the services sector, with the share of manufacturing remaining relatively constant. The manufacturing sector has been affected by international factors as well as domestic problems pertaining to shortage of skilled workers, poor physical infrastructure, official corruption, political instability, continuing terrorist attacks, acute energy shortages and a narrow production base. Lack of infrastructure in multiple sectors has hampered investment. Pakistan’s tax to GDP ratio is less than 10% and future attempts to improve this ratio will not be easy, given the political sensitivity of such issues. Yet, given the dependence on the IMF for averting a balance of payments crisis, the Nawaz Sharif government is going to have to carry out wide ranging reforms.

    Another important problem to be tackled by the Nawaz Sharif government is the energy crisis. Natural gas is the dominant source of its energy supply and, domestic supply being inadequate, there is dependence on imports. Pakistan imports about 80 per cent of its oil, and rising international prices have led to a shift towards gas consumption, leading to shortages. Development in the hydropower sector has lagged far behind its potential. Even though the country has significant reserves of coal, commercial exploitation is beset with technical problems. The government faces a multitude of problems that make it difficult to optimise the use of its indigenous energy resources. At the administrative level, these relate to inadequate transmission and distribution networks, power theft, the need for regulatory tariffs to keep up with operational costs and problems of circular debt in the electricity sector. Operational problems include a lack of refining capacity for crude oil, a faulty price setting mechanism, and lack of investment to build refinery infrastructure. In the power sector, the country continues to suffer from a large demand-supply gap, with power cuts lasting up to twenty hours a day, and industrial production being affected in a major way. The new government is expected to make moves to create a single Ministry dealing with energy and natural resources, and to reform the electric power regulatory authority, the distribution companies, and the generating companies, and to eliminate circular debt.

    Nawaz Sharif having reached out his hand for improving relations with India, he will possibly ensure that trade relations acquire fresh impetus, though things may get complicated with the religious right opposing such moves. He should be in a position to explain the advantages of such a relationship to Pakistan, given the need to boost a sagging economy. Yet, one should not expect a lot of change in policies related to terrorism targeted at India or its aversion to India’s presence in Afghanistan. In the run up to the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, the PML(N) government would try to facilitate talks between the Taliban and the Karzai government. The sentiment in Pakistan, that it was fighting a war according to US dictates within its territory, has fuelled anti-American sentiment in the country. Tension in relations between US and Pakistan is not likely to disappear, yet a complete breakdown is perhaps not on the cards, given Pakistan’s strategic importance for the US and Pakistan’s dependence on US for economic support.

    Nawaz Sharif will not have an easy task of governing the country. There are enormous domestic problems like Islamist militancy, Baloch nationalism, slow economic growth, energy shortages, youth unemployment, crisis in education, sectarian conflicts, etc. There are strong vested interests which will stand in the way of any efforts to resolve these problems. Similarly, in the field of foreign policy, the domestic opinion in Pakistan has fixed certain limits beyond which relations cannot be improved with countries like US and India, and outside which fresh thinking cannot be applied with regard to Afghanistan. If Nawaz Sharif has to make a difference to the situation, he will have to bring to bear the advantages of his massive victory, tremendous administrative experience and political acumen to succeed in his goal of making a strong and stable Pakistan at peace with its international environment.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.