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After Elections Pakistan's
Make Or Break Decision



LONDON-- Apathy was the only voice left to Pakistan's voters in Monday's general election. By staying away from the polls in record numbers they turned their back on the choices they were given, two alternative anciens regimes, both discredited, both corrupt, both unwilling or too beholden to military and feudal interests to turn Pakistan's many consecutive years of satisfactory economic growth even modestly in the direction of the have-nots, the overwhelming majority of this potentially bountiful country.

This is always the country that might have been--might have been Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, Indonesia or, these days, the Philippines, if its corruption wasn't so endemic, its successive administrations so incompetent, its feudal structure so deeply entrenched and, above all, its military spending so high.

Benazir Bhutto, the now totally rejected two time prime minister, should realize that the demons she rails against are within not without. They are certainly not President Farooq Leghari who suspended her rule, convinced that she and her husband had their fingers so deep in the pot of financial gain that the corruption of preceding regimes paled into insignificance. She has lived, and is perhaps doomed to live out, a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, with her husband accused of being behind the murder of her own brother, in the Bhutto family's internal political vendetta.

The new prime minister Nawaz Sharif, although not burdened by family feuds and such deep-rooted feudal political connections, nevertheless is also weighed down by allegations of serious corruption from his earlier term as prime minister. His redeeming feature which, despite the electorate's apparent low expectations, might give him a second chance is that he doesn't suffer Miss Bhutto's fatal flaws of petulance and arrogance. Moreover, these days he surrounds himself with some high-calibre advisors, not least the much respected Sartaj Aziz, the secretary-general of his political party, the Muslim League. We will know if this government will function well when we see how much responsibility the modest, but extraordinarily knowledgable, figure of Dr. Aziz is given. He understands what the problems are and he has the ability to help push through new policies.

Pakistan is a country with, until quite recently, a long history of respectable rates of growth. It has had relatively few recessionary set- backs. Yet its performance in improving the welfare of the people is outstandingly bad. Pakistan's life expectancy is a mere 50 years compared with 71 years in Sri Lanka, its less well-endowed neighbour at the other end of the sub-continent. Sri Lanka has had universal primary education for both boys and girls for decades while Pakistan remains far removed from this essential goal; its female literacy rate is one of the lowest in the world. Pakistan won't go forward unless, like its high-growth Asian neighbours, it puts this to right.

Military expenditure is Pakistan's albatross, consuming 26% of all government expenditure. India and Pakistan are locked in an historic stand-off with the two countries spending a colossal $20 billion on defense each year, a figure increasing rapidly in recent years just as it is falling in most of the rest of the world.

Despite widespread, systemic poverty in both countries--a greater concentration of very poor people than anywhere else in the world--they are spending between them twice as much on arms as Saudi Arabia which is 25 times richer and which has both Israel and Iraq to think about.

The running quarrel that undermines the economic and social potential of the two countries is Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state that probably should have become part of Pakistan when the British partitioned the sub-continent in 1947. It has led not only to two bitter wars but in Pakistan's case to giving the military high command a disproportionate and unhealthy degree of political influence. It has also led to a dangerous nuclear confrontation that is widely regarded by nuclear proliferation experts as the one most likely to ignite.

If Mr. Sharif is shrewd he will use his new mandate and handsome majority to take some bold and inspired initiatives. He cannot afford to confront the military directly but he can outsmart them. He should adopt the idea of the former minister of finance, Mahbub ul Haq, and propose a UN trusteeship over both Indian-held and Pakistani-held Kashmir with a withdrawal of the armed forces of both sides to near the border belt. If this were coupled with opening the border between the two parts of Kashmir it would give the Kashmiris themselves a chance for self- government while removing the military provocation that is leading to constant flare-ups and retarding day-to-day economic activity.

"For the past 50 years," Dr. Haq wrote last year in a Pakistani newspaper article, "India and Pakistan have stared across the border at each other with naked hostility. The situation looks increasingly hopeless but it is always darkest before dawn."

This week Pakistan's much derided political class is at a pivotal turning point. Mr. Sharif, if he chooses, can put the past behind him and break the chains that for too long have encumbered the country. Or he can do again what has been done before, fritter and corrupt away the reputation and potential of a country that could be one of the stars of Asia.


February 5, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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