Pakistan’s Mubarak Moment

Published on Project Syndicate, by Shahid Javed Burki, Feb. 16, 2011.

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s domestic situation is becoming increasingly precarious. Indeed, serious questions are now being raised as to whether the country can survive in its present form.

Such questions stem from a growing fear that Islamist groups might once again make a serious bid to capture the levers of power in the country. If that is not possible because of the presence of a large and disciplined military, the Islamists might attempt to carve out some space for themselves in which to establish a separate system of governance more fully aligned with what they view as the principles of Islam. 

Islamist groups’ previous attempt to create such a space was successfully countered by the military in 2009, when it drove insurgent forces from the sensitive district of Swat and the tribal agency of South Waziristan.

Today, however, Pakistan’s military may not be prepared to act with the force and conviction it showed last time. Its resolve to counter the Islamists’ growing influence has been weakened by two unfortunate events: the recent assassination of Salman Tasser, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, and the deaths last month of two young men allegedly at the hands of an American official named Raymond Davis … //

… Indeed, Pakistan’s rate of economic growth is the slowest on the South Asian mainland – one-half that of Bangladesh and one-third that of India. A sharp increase in the prices of essential commodities means that the real income of the bottom 60% of the population has declined.

Sluggish economic activity has increased the rate of urban unemployment to an estimated 34% of the labor force. While a functioning democratic system and a vibrant media may have provided outlets for people to vent their frustration with the state of the economy and the quality of governance, the political elite now recognizes that many ingredients in the Pakistani situation were present in those Middle Eastern countries where street politics have reached the boiling point.

The message is clear: democracy that does not deliver tangible benefits will not prevent Pakistan’s people from demanding radical change. The question now is whether the political class has the wherewithal to act accordingly. (full text).

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