Pakistan has been through a lot. The two continuous operations in the war to eliminate terror from its midst have tested the nation to its limit. It has survived through it all retaining its integrity and functioning structures, even if not at their optimal best. Similarly testing have been the political reverberations, alternating between military and civilian governments, falling short on the delivery side. Yet, the people have held onto democracy as an abiding option hoping that the system will graduate to the point of returning to them favours due in a democracy when fully embraced as a governance philosophy.
As Pakistan transitions into another democratic government, it once again engenders a hope that the common citizen may realise his right to the fruits of democracy long denied because of democracy’s incomplete institution. The last two years have seen the worst political turmoil in the country. The elected prime minister had to relinquish his office on charges related to misconduct while in office. These have been two lost years to Pakistan’s effort to stay the course in its effort to fight off its multifarious challenges. After being de-tracked, the election is a renewal of sorts as a new government gets chosen by the people. It will help though to place the electoral exercise into its true perspective around structures and statutes which determine its efficacy.
What may we hope for as we celebrate another democratic exercise? Nothing much, I am afraid. Post-18th Amendment, the effective powers of governance, societal development which includes education and health, law and order, industrial and infrastructure development including all other economic development, have been delegated to the provinces despite some of these being on the concurrent list. Punjab and occasionally Sindh in the last five years have demonstrated how provinces can pursue development independent of central direction from the federation. This was the consequence of the devolutionary benefits associated with the 18th Amendment. Other provinces, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, were slow in leveraging such constitutional freedom. As provinces learn the criticality of devolved power, in time they will be a in a far better position to deliver directly to their people the expected promise. The next five years will thus see greatly more empowered provinces.
Does that mean that the centre may not hold such critical importance any longer? Structurally, that is where the federation is heading but for it to actualise might take longer. The inertia of the traditional power equation is likely to hold longer, driven by challenges that the state faces. For the coming government, the issues are thus already laid out. Terror and its manifestations have reared their head again in Balochistan and KP. Their residual effect will persist as will the fresh tentacles that groups like Daesh have been able to graft in these provinces. Balochistan will define the larger sense of peace in the country; this will remain the overriding concern for the incoming government.
Similarly, economy and its extensions such as management of water resources will be of imminent concern. Other infrastructure needed to enable industry which can help create jobs will be next. Improved governance will remain the key to impacting the lives of the citizens. A lot of this work will be undertaken by the provinces. Civil-military relations will be harmonic, rather than competitive. The challenges surrounding the state will need such a relationship between the government and its military. Managing the national debt will be the central government’s other occupation. Creating revenue has always remained a central responsibility but it will need increasing participation of the provinces. Till now, the provinces have only learnt to rest on their share of the NFC Award for their fiscal needs. This will need to change. The profuse use of sovereign guarantee by the state on behalf of the provinces will need to evolve into a more practical arrangement where the provinces become independent in creating their own resources to match their needs.
If this is not a loose federal structure, what else is? If this isn’t a far strongly devolved federal arrangement where provinces will eventually be far stronger than the centre, what else will be? The effects of the 18th amendment have already begun to deal its impact. Eventually, the state will learn to adapt to this changing socioeconomic equation with associated political dividends but it remains a huge transition in place which will remain a work in progress for long enough to seem in a perpetual transition yet evolve to a more stabilising and an enabling federal future long promised in the constitutional structure.
On the eve of inducting a new government, it may seem like a downer to the aspirations of those who have hinged their hopes on capturing the centre but with time the economic power there will gradually denude to the point of only limited macro-management – a huge debt pile will keep it engaged at the microeconomic level as well in tax structure and in economic policy till the debt stands retired or relieved. Security, defence and foreign affairs will then become its central responsibility. This is how it was meant to be but we have rarely evolved to that level in our historical experience. Now may be the time to graduate in our journey as a state.
What the new governments in the centre and in the provinces need to additionally assure is full development of third-tier governance at the local bodies level so that returns from democracy flow back to the grassroots expeditiously. In the previous government, the local bodies were only instituted under orders from the Supreme Court, and then only nominally without getting financial powers, resources from the budget or the responsibility associated with their functioning. This accompaniment of both power and responsibility together is how local bodies can be held accountable.
The enormous exercise of elections – around 107 million voters simultaneously for provincial assemblies and the National Assembly – marks a moment of success for Pakistan. This was the 12th such exercise since elections began in the country in 1964. This time around the environment was singularly polarised under the umbrella of continuing terror emanating from inimical forces across Pakistan’s western borders. That the people defied all odds and came out in great numbers, perhaps bettering all previous records of electoral turnout, are an assurance of continuous trust and promise that the people have in their country. With such investment, the future cannot be too far off.
What one may desperately hope for from elections is some political stability, a currency long lost to Pakistan. It is likely that the provinces will have their share of it while it may need some garnering in the centre. A contender who is nimble may conjure one and then sustain it with some serious accommodation, failing which we may still be searching for one – leading us to an even bigger predicament. That would fail the immense hope which this nation will have invested in its future.