Pakistan: A Brighter Future?

Niaz Murtaza

Pakistanis tend to be dreamy romanticists. Our favorite dream relates to the sudden emergence of a knight in shining armor from heavens to rescue everyone through able governance. Unfortunately, this is a pipe-dream, for leaders emerge from within societies, from among stronger classes, and embody the worldviews of their parent class and allies.

Governance transforms when classes angry with the status-quo become organized enough to challenge ruling classes. The collective anger eventually ignites political aspirations in the hearts of their most daring members. In absolute states, these aspirations unleash armed revolution. In even imperfect democracies, elections provide easier avenues to challengers unless their agenda lacks mass appeal, like the Taliban’s. Thus, armed revolutions under democracies appeal mainly to unpopular fascists unlikely to win elections.

Six overlapping classes currently compete for control in Pakistan: generals, aristocrats, industrialists, mafia, militants and middle-classes.  The predatory worldviews of the main contenders—army, landlords and industrialists—cause economic stagnation. The high numbers of competing groups and their divergent agendas cause instability. So does the unequal representation of different ethnic groups among powerful classes, as those thinly represented among powerful classes, such as Balochi, become rebellious.

Pakistan’s future then will get determined by the outcome of the intense power struggles among these groups. Stability will emerge if classes that can provide better governance gain power democratically in alliance with others while groups that embrace violence get eliminated.

What do the next 2-3 decades likely hold for Pakistan? Our urbanization rate will exceed 70%. Even at historical GDP and current population growth rates, real per capita income will come close to Indonesia and Thailand’s current levels. The center of the global economy will shift to our neighborhood as China and India will be among the largest economies. Their progress will creep closer to our borders, providing increasing opportunities. Assuming peace there, China and USA will ferry much of Afghanistan’s $3 trillion of minerals through Pakistan. Thus, much economic activity will occur in and around Pakistan.

What impact will all this have on the fortunes of our six contenders? The biggest losers will be landlords as rural population shrinks. This dooms PPP unless Bilawal later transforms it drastically. Another loser politically will be the army as civil society becomes stronger and tolerance for dictatorship shrinks globally. Conversely, industrialists and middle classes, slightly more progressive, will become stronger. In fact, they already are ascendant. While popular myth maintains that the parliament is full of feudals, they already are in minority there.

Governance has not improved though as most industrialist and middle-class leaders replacing them are not paragons of virtue but also practitioners of similar patronage politics. This is not surprising given current worldviews of both classes. Our textile and towel barons excel in making money not through product improvement but through tax evasion and breaking rules while much of the middle class pursues short-cuts to wealth. However, this should not discourage us for the initial set of new leaders invariably takes their lessons from immediate predecessors. As increasing urbanization, education and incomes gradually make more voters more demanding, patronage politics will fail to satisfy their growing demands and attention will perforce shift to broadly benefitting policies.

Some minor changes are already visible. Overall, there is little difference among PPP, PML-N and MQM and the latter two are even worse in some ways (conservative and fascist tendencies respectively). However, put them under a powerful microscope and a greater capacity to deliver municipal-level services becomes evident among the two urban parties. The infrastructure built by Nawaz, assiduously doubling up as mayor Lahore while CM Punjab, and by Kamal in Karachi confirm these trends. Gradually, these changes will graduate to provincial and federal tasks.

In time, we will likely move to a new two-party system consisting of a right-wing industrialist-led party  and a left-wing, relatively pro-poor, middle-class party, both wooing smaller regional parties, such as the PPP, MQM, Balochis and ANP. The first party is already there; the second will eventually emerge with increasing urbanization and incomes. Thus, while the lion and the goat are unlikely to be spotted enjoying a leisurely drink together any time soon, governance will likely improve over 2-3 decades.

This leaves the fate of violent militants and mafia to ponder. Left unattended, their powers may increase during the major socio-economic changes and migrations likely in the future. Both must be weakened if governance and stability are to improve. Who will bell these ferocious cats? MQM’s supremo recently requested the army to eliminate landlords. More pertinent is to ask the Army to help eliminate the mafia and militants (some that it supports) under civilian leadership and abandon its own grandiose national and regional ambitions, as all these inflict much more damage than landlords who are already a threatened species politically.

Given greater resolve to tackle them post-Musharraf, militants will likely weaken over the next 5 years. The carrot is also essential and donors must provide more money than the annual $1.5 billion allocated by US and more technology and market access for economic and educational development. Driven by fury and lack of opportunities, the Pakistani youth has proved its ability to cause major harm globally. This enormous energy can be harnessed constructively, consequently increasing security in Pakistan and globally. Finally, whether the mafia gets tackled is uncertain. If not, Pakistan will follow Brazil and Mexico’s path—inequitable progress with high crime. If yes, Malaysia’s serener path beckons.
Thus, the worst contenders to power—army, landlords and militants–will weaken while those less deficient—industrialists and middle-classes–will gain in future, resulting in incremental improvement. The nervous-minded may ask whether Pakistan will survive long enough for this slow process to yield fruit. Undoubtedly yes, for it possesses many resiliencies absent in disintegrating states: strong middle-class, civil society, diaspora and military, and a semblance of democracy. The impatient-minded may prefer another dictatorship to emulate Korea’s shorter path to glory. That may actually be a shorter path to state disintegration.

Dr. Niaz Murtaza, Research Associate, University of California, Berkeley.



Filed under Pakistan

4 responses to “Pakistan: A Brighter Future?

  1. Midfield Dynamo

    A very good overall perspective, however, some of the assumptions to derive the end game in this hypothesis are over simplistic, like the army’s regional concerns are mostly reactionary and defensive in nature. If India were to gain its economic breakthrough, will it be able to overcome destitution amongst its majority. In any case its first order of business would be to destroy Pakistan’s defensive capability overtly or through subversion, political or financial.

    Pakistan cannot continue to wait endlessly for a natural process of evolution to bring it out of this rut of inefficient and corrupt leadership, it must make some revolutionary changes to its basic structure and get ahead.

  2. Tilsim

    A very balanced article, full of hope. However it underestimates the disruptive drive and force of Islamism, in my view. This political ideology is continuing to make strides over the different pillars of state since 1947. In the absence of alternative national narrative that captures the public’s imagination and results in real changes to people’s lives, we will see more domestic and international turmoil. Democracy can help but we need to take active steps to bring about a revolution in the way we think – preferably from within the discourse of Islam in the first instance.

  3. AZW

    Good, thoughtful analysis. That the center of economic gravity is inexorably shifting east is undeniable. That both India and China will surpass the US GDP in size in coming four decades is also quite clear. That Pakistan has a sizeable middle class, and a politically aware Diaspora that is increasingly becoming a player in an electronically connected world is also happening. While I do not disagree with the likelihood of scenario that the author has sketched above, future is fraught with the following dangers.

    a) Pakistan’s rapid population growth may presage a rise in chaos that may overwhelm the positives mentioned above. Especially as Pakistan remains fretful of the strategic depth and Eastern nemesis, its lack of focus on governance may mean that ethnic fissures become too wide in a perennially unstable society. The immediate negatives would then overwhelm the distant positives.

    b) There is also a chance that Pakistan turns out to be an unstable Mexico that failed to benefit from its proximity to a giant economic superpower. In a badly governed country unsure of its ideals, the drug barons and mafias would take hold and the country settles into a case of perennial instability. This process can go on for decades, as the country lurches between democracy and dictatorship.

    On the positive side, I must say that we are lucky to be living in an age of unparalleled communications. The flow of ideas is too swift. An average middle class Pakistani has now access to dozens of television channels as well as internet, and he is not as sequestered as his parents were from the world some 40 years back. As a result, there is a tremendous impact from a world that is pulling ahead at a breakneck speed. The hold of the religio-nationalists who revel in the world full of conspiracy theories and collective denials is not as vicious as it used to be just 10 years ago. There are already rumblings even in the right wing Pakistani media that we are being left behind, while India is moving forward. I will take these rumblings as an extremely positive sign.

    Future, however, has its way to find the path of least resistance. For Pakistan to prosper, it has to survive. For Pakistan to survive, it needs to stay afloat economically. With one province in armed rebellion, and one province forming a base of religious terrorists who are trying to bring down the state machinery, and kill the civilian and military leaders, there are too many catastrophes that can unveil in no time. Let’s hope we navigate through the present times, because future afterwards does hold some promise for the nation.

  4. It’s fact that we are living in a very challenging time but it doesn’t mean “wait for good time” and nothing participate for any development activities in Pakistan. Change is needed and it would be possible through our little activities. Students of Pakistan can play a big role to change the history of Pakistan with the help of technological development.

    It’s true we need a good leadership to move forward as a growing country and face this challenging time. We have all the potential to grow without depend on developed countries but we are not ready to realize our capacity and capability.