Feb 10, 2009
Pakistan’s reputation for volatile democracy plumbed new depths with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto whilst campaigning for the 2008 parliamentary elections. The aftermath of the tragedy sees some tentative signs of progress, especially towards dismantling the cosy alliance of executive, military and judicial functions cultivated by President Musharraf. Whilst the new government may bring fresh ideas for addressing the turmoil in the Afghanistan border regions, economic pressures from rising fuel and food prices threaten to add millions to the substantial numbers already living below the poverty line.Millennium Development Goals in Pakistan Pakistan is home to a significant proportion of the world’s poor. Almost a quarter of the country’s 158 million people survive beneath a poverty line evaluated as the cost of basic food and essential non-food items and which has been adopted as the benchmark for progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This indicator stood at 26.1% in 1990 but rose to 34.5% by the end of that decade. The figure of 23.9% reported by the most recent household survey conducted in 2004/05 therefore implies a rate of poverty reduction which would meet the 2015 target of 13%. However, the survey draws attention to the large number of families living just above the poverty line, warning that their status is “very sensitive” to economic shocks such as food price inflation.Prospects for achieving the wider range of MDGs in Pakistan are at best uncertain, none more so than in education where net primary enrolment remains barely over 50%, with girls lagging behind. Progress is far too slow to reach the 2015 Goal of equal and universal enrolment. A history of priority government spending on military and business interests has condemned many children to approach adulthood through the inappropriate experience of factory labour or unregulated religious madrasa schools. About 1.5 million children are believed to attend madrasas, some of which are suspected of fermenting Islamist extremism in defiance of government attempts to monitor their curriculum. Adult literacy remains just over 50% and, in rural areas, literacy of women is only 20%. Poor awareness about the MDGs amongst both public and private sectors allows the government to escape censure for inaction, for example, its exceptionally low spending on education and health which together amounts to less than 5% of GDP. Health in Pakistan A booming urban private health sector offers little consolation to the majority of the population which depends on public facilities compromised by underfunding, corruption and shortages of qualified staff. Poor national health standards are reflected in the exceptionally high incidence of tuberculosis and in Pakistan’s status as one of only four countries where polio remains endemic.Rates of child and infant mortality are high in relation to other South Asian countries. Modest rates of reduction since 1990 suggest that the MDG targets for mortality remain very demanding, although the sharp rise in immunisation of young children since 2000 should bring rewards. The proportion of births assisted by qualified health workers remains below 50% and, in the absence of convincing data, it is possible that the rate of maternal mortality has not fallen significantly in the MDG period. Questions are also being asked about official data which claims that the targets for access to safe water and sanitation will be achieved.Food Security in Pakistan Steep rises in food prices are creating concern about a new class of urban poor in Pakistan’s cities. Production of the staple crop of wheat has been falling rather than rising, aggravated by wastage in transport, inadequate storage facilities, deteriorating irrigation systems and conversion of land for other purposes. A potentially controversial government solution aims to attract investment in agriculture from Middle Eastern countries, the object being to convert the wheat deficit into surplus, ambitiously addressing food security issues in both Pakistan and the investor countries. Whether innovative or conventional, policies to boost food production in Pakistan must recognise that the natural water cycle has been exploited to the extent that the country may become water-deficient within five years. Mega-project solutions such as the controversial Kalabagh dam have run into strong popular objections – the division of water resources between Sindh and Punjab provinces proving to be contentious. World Bank estimates of the cost of addressing overall water scarcity issues in Pakistan are astronomic.Politics in PakistanInadequate attention to poverty in the allocation of national resources may reflect the disenfranchisement of the poor themselves, in contrast to the fully-fledged democracy in neighbouring India. Political parties tend to be vehicles for charismatic leaders and their followers, giving rise to a corrupt political culture and weak civil society. Governance is undermined by ethnic and inter-provincial disputes and discord, political feuds and religious hostility. The current scenario has its origins in a military coup in 1999 which appointed the head of the army, General Pervez Musharraf, as president. With powers to dismiss the elected government backed by strong influence over the judiciary, Musharraf and his senior generals were able to manipulate parliamentary elections in 2002 to ensure a majority for the Pakistan Muslim League - Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q), a party established to represent the interests of the president and the military. Pakistan is a federation of four ethnic provinces of Balochistan, North West Frontier (NWFP), Punjab, Sindh and three administrative areas of Azad Kashmir, Ladakh and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It has a bicameral Parliament consisting of the Senate and National Assembly. The Senate is a permanent legislative body of 100 members for which the four Provincial Assemblies and FATA form the electoral college. The National Assembly has a total membership of 342 elected through popular vote. As the president is elected by a college including both parliamentary bodies and the provincial assemblies, Musharraf’s strategy was to time the presidential election shortly before the parliamentary vote (originally due towards the end of 2007) to ensure his own re-election. Musharraf had perhaps not bargained for the influence of the independent-minded Chief Justice, Iftikhar Choudhry, whose series of rulings united Pakistan’s lawyers against any further abuse of constitutional procedures. Rather than wait for Choudhry’s verdict on the legality of his re-election, in November 2007 Musharraf declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution and sacked the rebellious judges. Although his re-election duly took place, Musharraf succumbed to international pressure by abandoning his position as head of the army, a promise outstanding for many years, and allowing two exiled former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, to return to lead their parties in the parliamentary elections.The assassination of Mrs Bhutto in December 2007 raised fears of a catastrophic collapse in regional stability but the elections were eventually held in February 2008. The new head of the military, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, declared his intention to keep the army out of politics so that Musharraf’s allies were isolated and decimated in the vote. Bhutto’s party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), now headed by her husband Asif Zardari, won the most seats and formed a coalition government with the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), the party led by Sharif. The new prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, is from the PPP. The influence of the president is now greatly diminished and his future uncertain. The PPP and PML-N are not natural partners, their strengths respectively drawn from the agricultural and business interests of Sindh and Punjab Provinces. United only by a desire to see the back of Musharraf, the coalition has swiftly fallen apart with Sharif withdrawing his ministers from cabinet but not as yet his support in parliament. The area of disagreement is the reinstatement of the judges due in May 2008 – the PPP has advocated constitutional modifications to their role which Sharif would not accept. In the meantime, a series of corruption charges against Zardari have been dropped.The Afghanistan FactorAs it became clear that the US intended to achieve regime change in neighbouring Afghanistan by force in 2001, Pakistan was faced with a difficult choice – to retain its sympathies towards the Taliban or side with the superpower. Musharraf chose the latter course and, in return, was showered with aid dollars and military hardware, any conditionality focused more on action against terrorism than good governance. The Bush administration has cancelled $1 billion of debt and provided about $10 billion since 2001.There is however regular sniping from the US that Pakistan’s cooperation with the “war on terror” has not been as wholehearted as it should, matched only by domestic unpopularity of the collusion, especially when US attacks cause loss of civilian lives inside Pakistan. Musharraf has walked a tightrope between these two perspectives, oscillating between military offensives and peace deals with the tribal rulers of NWFP and North and South Waziristan, regions beyond the control of central government and known to harbour Taliban sympathisers. By contrast the new government has so far indicated a preference to address the slide towards fundamentalism through dialogue and development rather than aggression. A new counter-terrorism strategy has been agreed in which the Americans will refrain from attacks and allocate a much larger proportion of aid to non-military projects.Refugee camps along the Afghan border, long filled by Afghans fleeing from the Taliban and war with Russia, have had their numbers swollen further as the US action developed. However, since 2002, a vast number of 3.2 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan. A UN Refugee Agency registration process completed in early 2007 identified 2.1 million refugees remaining in Pakistan together with an estimated further 400,000 unregistered. These numbers represent a massive logistical challenge which inevitably creates tension with host cities and communities. The UN Refugee Agency and the Government of Pakistan have announced that all camps will close by 2009 but there are doubts as to the willingness of many of the refugees to return to the uncertainties of life in Afghanistan. Whilst Afghan refugees enjoy at least a degree of protection, the position of Pakistan’s own people displaced by fighting is less fortunate. Military action such as the major offensive in the Swat Valley in NWFP in October 2007 forced the displacement of upwards of 500,000 people according to some estimates. Due to restricted access to areas of NWFP and Waziristan, there is no accurate information about the numbers or condition of internally displaced persons.Conflict Another factor influencing Pakistan's approach to Afghanistan may have been the reassurance of a continued even-handed attitude by the US towards the longstanding and bitter territorial disagreement with India over Jammu and Kashmir. The dispute, which remains the primary excuse for vast military spending and nuclear sabre-rattling on both sides, has its origins in the 1947 partition. The frontier dividing Pakistan and India in Kashmir is known as the Line of Control (LoC) or ceasefire line, indicating that a peace settlement remains elusive. Hostilities have ceased since the development of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in 2003 which included the restoration of road and bus links. The tragic 2005 earthquake on the Pakistan side of the border further encouraged the two countries to soften their stance. The LoC now has five points opened on a humanitarian basis, allowing people on both sides of the border to meet. Peace talks have stalled during Pakistan’s political crisis but a resumption is promised. Whilst there is this respite on the Indian border, the government faces a quagmire of armed conflict with the people of Balochistan province. Separatist leaders claim the province has been deprived of its due share of the rewards of natural gas and other resources. As in the tribal regions, the government has preferred a military solution over moves to address local grievances.Human Rights in Pakistan Through the long years of military-controlled government, the human rights situation in Pakistan remained grim, symbolised by the “disappearance” of about 400 political opponents and activists. Chief Justice Choudhry’s order to the Musharraf government to account for the missing persons was a factor contributing to his suspension, during which the president changed the relevant laws to secure impunity for the army’s actions. The new Anti-Terrorism Act has been exploited for political vendettas and evidence has emerged of a culture of torture within the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military's secret service. Threats of fines or imprisonment for journalists have plunged Pakistan almost to the bottom of the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.Although neither the PPP nor PML–N parties had unblemished human rights records during their past periods in power, the new government has made an encouraging start by ratifying a long outstanding international human rights treaty. However, much remains to be done. Domestic violence against women has been exposed as commonplace in Pakistan and in November 2006 parliament passed the Protection of Women bill addressing the more extreme impact of the controversial Hudood ordinances introduced in 1979 which made it almost impossible for a woman to prove a charge of rape. Traditions of bonded and child labour have also proved resistant to change. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 1.7 million members of families are bonded to an employer, particularly in brick kilns and that over 3 million children are involved in labour. The common feature of these and other abuses of civilian rights in Pakistan is the failure of legislation introduced or promised by the government to have any impact.