Is change inevitable?

State in Pakistan has become a detested institution for the ordinary Pakistani

Shaheer M Ashraf May 15, 2023
The author is a freelance writer and political analyst based in Australia


The economy has been brought to a standstill as the government no longer has the funds to service its mounting debt. Unable to finance its fiscal expenditure, the sovereign has been levying an increasing fare on lower segments of society while the ruling elite still remain largely exempt from tax. This economic meltdown — combined with overpopulation, exorbitant inflation and unemployment — has created acute civil discontent as vast sections of society have become disillusioned with the state.

While it may seem that I have just discussed the unfolding crisis in Pakistan, above is an account of the events leading up to the Storming of the Bastille in 1789. A common mistake the ruling class in Pakistan makes is assuming that Pakistan’s ailments are ‘unique’. Whether it’s the French, American, Cuban or Russian Revolution, the underlying cause of these systemic upheavals is homogenous: a breakdown of the relationship between the people and the state.

The state in Pakistan has become a detested institution for the ordinary Pakistani. The fact that many educated Pakistanis do not believe in paying taxes — the most fundamental representation of people’s trust in the state — is indicative of the extent of this breakdown.

The countrywide unrest in the wake of Imran Khan’s arrest is only in part due to his prominent persona and much more due to him being a symbol of resistance against the status quo. Given that his popularity has been directly derived from the public’s hatred for contemporary civilian and military institutions, his elimination from the political scene will unlikely result in a decrease in unrest. Add to this the looming prospect of default, and it is likely that all Pakistanis, regardless of their political affiliation, will take to the streets.

The model of governance that has characterised Pakistan for the last 70 odd years has been one of civilian and military disequilibrium. Political leaders and democratic institutions have never been strong enough to exert their authority over the military. Meanwhile, the military has never been powerful enough to persistently rule over such a large population and has required political leaders to provide itself with legitimacy. Such an unstable power dynamic has been the primary reason for Pakistan’s turbulent political history with frequent transfers of power between military and civilian governments.

Such instability has always deterred foreign investment and prevented Pakistan from achieving high and sustainable economic growth. The establishment was able to make this hybrid model work by leveraging its geostrategic position and partaking in wars in Afghanistan. External loans with generous rates and debt relief from the Paris Club kept the economy tugging along.

The hybrid model in its essence was never really sustainable. Rather it was propped up by the geopolitical rents that Pakistan managed to extract from the rest of the world. The myth that Pakistan is too big to fail was based on its importance as an ally in the War on Terror. The ruling elite should have no doubt by now that the West, and the IMF for that matter, will not continue pouring endless streams of money into Pakistan and no longer hold it to the same importance that the ruling establishment would like to believe.

Economically speaking, Pakistan has run into a dead end. Meaningful economic growth will not be achievable without substantive reform — reform that a hybrid regime has and will remain incapable of bringing about. The only sustainable politico-economic model for Pakistan is democracy. While this notion has been shared by many, the bigger question has been how to bring about this change.

A peaceful solution to this dilemma was hoped for when the military promised to be ‘neutral’ and would no longer interfere in politics as it has in the past. More than 12 months on, it’s clear that this hope was misplaced and that the power corridors in Pakistan still believe that the current hybrid model is feasible. However, the economic crisis that has persisted since the vote of no-confidence has changed many ordinary Pakistanis’ view on this subject.

The consequences of such a divide between people and state could be observed in Sri Lanka last year. Protests became increasingly violent as mobs made attempts to storm the residences of government officials and set fire to police vans and other public property. The military was deployed to control the unrest, access to social media was restricted, and protesters were painted by government spokesmen as terrorists.

Sound familiar? The difference between the protests in both countries is that protests in Sri Lanka were non-partisan and based purely on economic frustration. The recent unrest in Pakistan has been primarily political in nature, but adding a default to the mix could very well escalate civil disobedience beyond what we saw in Sri Lanka last year.

Those who believe that the administration can simply ride out the storm need only look at the fall of the Rajapaksas, who were once perceived as almost mythical demigods for their role in defeating separatists in the Sri Lankan civil war. After nearly two decades in power, the Rajapaksas were unceremoniously ousted, and the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa forced to flee to the Maldives.

Pakistan at the moment is stepping into uncharted territory. Never before has the power of the establishment been challenged the way it has been today. To assume that its power is untouchable is the same as assuming that the hybrid regime is still succeeding in fulfilling its objectives as it has in the past. The world has changed significantly in decades past and so have the rules upon which these regimes were previously preserved. Whether ‘the powers that be’ recognise that Pakistan too needs to change is yet to be seen. Regardless, change is inevitable.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 15th, 2023.

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