Pakistan: A Brighter Future?

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 the rural population shrinks. 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. The infrastructure built in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi confirms 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. 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. For Pakistan, that may actually be a shorter path to state disintegration.


This article previously appeared in Dawn

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



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