Pakistan’s future

2008-01-04 00:00

Pakistan was established through intransigence and haste: refusal by the Congress Party to accept self-governing Muslim states within a broad Indian federation and British anxiety to withdraw the authority of the Raj. When it attained independence in 1947, one million people died in inter-communal riots and well over five million were displaced. Such was the legacy inherited by Pakistan.

It, with Afghanistan, is a key state in the conflict between modernity and that brand of Islamist fundamentalism that readily resorts to international violence. Yet Pakistan, the world’s second largest Muslim state, is a fragile nation bound mainly by religion. Each of its four provinces is linguistically distinct and regional tensions, particularly between Punjab and Sindh, are pronounced. Along the Afghan border in the tribal territory, a low-level war in which the Pakistani army is underperforming is taking place against an extremist state within a state.

Instability within the Pakistan federation is a matter for deep geopolitical concern. For 50 years the country has swung between military rule and civilian governments run by semi-feudal political parties. The latter owe their identity to leaders rather than to policy. Corruption, inefficiency and institutional instability have resulted. Millions of poor people have been denied social justice by this system, providing fertile ground for religious zealots, including the Taliban. The main hope for Pakistan lies in a democratically elected government and a security force prepared to take its lead from it to protect the middle ground against extremists. All is not lost. And, ironically, freedom of the media improved in Pakistan under the military rule of Pervez Musharraf. The party of the late Benazir Bhutto, expected to win the next election, is popular and secular.

After the unrest and widespread damage that followed Bhutto’s recent assassination, the electoral commission had little option but to postpone elections for six weeks. While both main opposition political parties are suspicious of the additional time given to Musharraf’s government, there are indications that they will participate. This leaves open the possibility of a new civilian government with democratic legitimacy. Regional, perhaps even world, peace depends upon it.

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