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Pakistan’s Polarized Polity May Find Convergence in 2015

The Margalla Hills, overlooking Islamabad, Pakistan on a hazy winter day in December 2014. Photograph by Saleem H. Ali
A clear sky over the verdant Margalla Hills fades into a haze upon Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, which lies in their shadow, on a winter day in December 2014. Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

I heralded the start of 2015, seated together with family around a bonfire, on a mildly foggy night in Lahore, Pakistan. The mist that surrounded us was metaphoric of the uncertainty that enshrouds my land of origin. During a three-week visit, I had witnessed the national horror of a terrorist attack against promising adolescents and their teachers at a school in Peshawar. Despair was palpable but so too was a determination to unite against such dark forces across the country’s political spectrum. Even those who sympathized with the Taliban, such as the clerics of the infamous Red Mosque, were forced to eventually denounce the attack after progressive civil society activists protested outside the mosque and took legal action against the mosque’s imam, Maulana Abdul Aziz.

2014 has been a year of polarized politics in Pakistan. The old guard dominant parties (both the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Group – PMLN – and its erstwhile rival the Pakistan Peoples’ Party – PPP) were confronted with a mass-protest against alleged election rigging by the new political force of former cricketer Imran Khan’s party (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf – PTI – or Pakistan Justice Movement). Commerce and visits by foreign dignitaries, including the Chinese Premier and the head of the IMF, were impacted by this internal strife and the economy is estimated by the government to have suffered at least Rs. 400 billion ($4 billion) in losses (as noted in an August 2014 court filing). The Peshawar attack has temporarily united the country’s major political forces at the turn of the new year, but there will likely be a return to political dissent fairly soon.

My conversations this month with old school friends, who are currently activists or officials in both of the old and new politics camps, revealed two distinct normative views on the country’s development agenda that will spur renewed dissent in Pakistani politics. As a developing country with tremendous inequality, Pakistan’s politicians have diametrically different views of how to appease and win voters and also serve the public good. The ruling party of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the PMLN espouses an infrastructure-led pathway to development with a focus on grad transport projects such as new airports, dedicated bus lanes and motorways. On the other hand, the PTI is focused on functional reform of government bureaucracy and procedures, such as the land records tracking system and the registration of police investigatory reports. No doubt the country needs both infrastructure and procedural reform and it is a positive sign that such development narratives are being debated and challenged by the Pakistani public.

Despite differences on economic development priorities, there is an emerging consensus between the old and new guard on working towards a diverse energy portfolio as the country faces crippling power shortages in electricity and natural gas supply. The PMLN’s energy plan has been publicly discussed since March 2013 and  the PTI appears to indirectly support similar measures in its provincial government policies with an emphasis on smaller-scale hydropower. This is where political forces need to find immediate convergence and progress appears to be forthcoming. There is a short-term fix to the energy shortfall being proposed through coal imports and natural gas plants via Qatari LNG imports (while the transnational pipeline projects with Iran and Turkmenistan are on hold due to sanctions and security concerns).  Natural gas imports could also reignite the CNG market for mobile fuel that has been largely extinguished due to supply issues, despite Pakistan’s exemplary vehicular infrastructure in this sector. A longer-term strategy will involve large-scale hydroelectric capacity development, and solar and wind for rural areas, and possibly further nuclear power as well, if a delayed $9 billion project with China’s support reaches completion in Karachi. What is particularly refreshing about the energy debate is the willingness to think regionally, including joint power projects with India and across South Asia, which are still being considered despite sabre rattling at the border by both sides.

On the theme of regionalism, during this visit, I was also heartened to attend a major international forum organized by the Islamabad-based organization LEAD-Pakistan (on whose board I serve as well). Indian, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan scholars were also invited to the forum to celebrate the publication of a book with authors from across the subcontinent linking “Democracy, Sustainable Development and Peace.” The Director General of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi and the current chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri was the keynote speaker. Dr. Pachauri was undeterred by threats of terrorist attacks and visited Lahore and Islamabad to show solidarity with Pakistan’s intelligentsia. He noted the importance of energy cooperation between countries of the region and particular highlighted cooperation across the Indo-Pak border on village-based solar energy through TERI, which could complement broader efforts such as the newly agreed upon regional energy plan of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). It was also refreshing to see that, unlike many other elite events held in Islamabad, this forum also included grass-roots activists such as Abdul Samad Khan, who survived cancer at an early age to start an organization called Youth Impact, focused on outdoor leadership training for adolescents. Such convergence of high-level policy advocacy and grass-roots activism also bodes well for Pakistan.

As I said goodbye to my relatives, I felt a desire to show cautious optimism about Pakistan’s prospects in 2015. Yet, I had to restrain myself from an inherent optimism bias, since there were still two key issues that left me unsettled about Pakistan’s future – education and healthcare. Both these issues are noted as a priority in terms of aggregate coverage of the population, but no political party has demonstrably provided a strategy for improving the quality of secondary education or healthcare services. The number of hospitals or the number of school enrollments should not be used as ultimate metrics of success but rather clear improvements in public health indicators and internationally competitive secondary graduates with critical thinking skills should be touchstones of success. Improving education and healthcare quality can also be powerful converging themes for all the political parties in Pakistan. National Task Forces with clear measurable goals on education and health are urgently needed and should be a target for 2015 across the political spectrum. The PTI’s acumen on bureaucratic reform and the PMLN’s alacrity with infrastructure delivery, coupled with the power of common cause in health and education from other major parties such as the PPP, can collectively find value in charting out the plan for these two essential sectors most efficaciously.

Perhaps my next new year’s eve in Lahore will be lit with clean and efficient energy and the emergent glow of a healthier and more enlightened citizenry. Amen.

Comments

  1. Saif
    Brisbane
    May 31, 2015, 12:11 pm

    Hi Saleem, fellow pakistani from UQ, I saw some good optimism in your blog, however unfortunately , my opinions werent the same as yours when I visited home this winter.

  2. Danielle Gehrmann
    January 29, 2015, 12:13 am

    I imagine that it must have been somewhat despairing being there at the time of the attack on the school in Peshawar.

    Great analysis of the current political situation in Pakistan. I would add that attempts to minimise the endemic corruption will also go a long way in easing overall societal polarity.

    Here’s to convergence in 2015!

  3. Faraz J Karamat
    Lahore, Pakistan
    January 7, 2015, 4:50 am

    Saleem, you have highlighted the key issues which are being faced by Pakistan today.
    I would like to add that though the projects being undertaken by the federal and provincial governments do play an important role, it’s the prioritization of these projects which is wrong.
    Energy is definitely the most critical issue for us as many other critical issues are tied to it like operation of existing small and medium level industry which lack the capacity to generate their own power (unlike large scale industry), new local and foreign investment to which are tied the financial institutions. Services related industries, education and healthcare all are dependent on the energy sector and high speed connectivity services. Thousands of skilled and educated people benefit from and depend on all these services.
    Our vision should not be to meet the existing requirements but to focus on requirements of our ever growing population which will not slow down in the near future.
    Anyway.. you have covered everything wonderfully.

  4. Priya Shyamsundar
    United States
    January 5, 2015, 4:22 pm

    Good to read your blog Saleem. Glad to note the cautious optimism. Happy new year.