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September 29, 2015



Nawaz’s failed benchmarks

Shortly after Nawaz Sharif’s election victory in 2013 some western and Pakistani journalists and policy analysts were sharing a meal in Islamabad when conversation turned to what the new government might be able to achieve.
Some argued that no democratic government – including Nawaz’s two previous administrations – had turned out to be either bold or even semi-competent reformers. The most likely prospect for Nawaz mark three was a lack of clear objectives. And even when decisions were taken there was likely to be an inability to get them implemented.
But others thought Sharif’s third term might work out quite well. After all, the general political climate was good. Never before had a civilian government managed to complete its term, hold relatively free and fair elections and transfer power to another civilian government. Nawaz Sharif was more experienced than he had been in his first two terms. His period in Saudi exile had made him more reflective and mature. This time he would deliver.
Furthermore, the optimists argued, it wasn’t just a case of personalities. Democracy in Pakistan was gelling. A couple more peaceful transfers of power like this and the politicians might even come to realise that the best way to win power would be to address the concerns of the voters. Better still, the fact that Nawaz Sharif had been ousted in a coup meant he no longer had any illusions about the true nature of the Pakistan army. He would be on his guard. So this time round it would be different.
To settle the issue the diners agreed to draft some benchmarks against which the incoming government could be measured.
I should perhaps mention that the meal was held in the home of Declan Walsh of the New York Times. Sadly he was unable to be with us as a few days earlier he had been unceremoniously bundled out of the country for the simple reason that his reporting consistently revealed what was happening in the country. He is one of the few people to

lose his job for being too good at it. So even though he had nothing to do with the discussion we agreed, in rather sentimental mood for our expelled colleague, to entitle our tests of the ‘Declan Walsh house benchmarks’. Emails were circulated and the benchmarks set in digital stone to prevent any backsliding on people’s predictions.
So here are the Declan Walsh house benchmarks: these are the things the optimists thought Nawaz Sharif could achieve:
First, there would be final, unappeasable convictions of five senior militants. Second, the public sector workforce would be cut by 10 percent. Third, electricity outages would be produced by 50 percent; Fourth, and finally, power would be devolved to Balochistan and the civilian government would wrest some control of Baloch policy from the military.
I wanted to add that someone would be convicted for tax evasion in a non-politically inspired case but the suggestion was roundly rejected as hopelessly unrealistic.
To be fair, I should make clear that the time period we agreed on was the full Nawaz Sharif term – assuming, of course, he got that far. We are only now at the half way but we can perhaps make an interim judgement as to whether or not the prime minister is at least on track to achieving the Declan Walsh house benchmarks.
For what it’s worth my own prediction was that he would only manage to reduce the power outages. I figured that since promises to end the loadshedding had played a large part in his winning the election, he would probably calculate that delivery of adequate supplies of electricity could ensure him another win next time round.
But the optimists thought he would achieve all four benchmarks. So how has he got on? The diners at the original diner recently reconvened to make an assessment.
Few would challenge the assertion that the first benchmark has been achieved. True, it may be only as a result of the establishment of military courts. There is still little reason to think that a civilian court would be likely to hand down convictions of senior militants. But a benchmark is a benchmark. Nothing was said about how the policy would be achieved. That’s one out of four.
Next, the public sector cuts of 10 percent. This was always a slightly troublesome benchmark because there is no reliable way of measuring the size of the public sector. Having said that, even Nawaz’s most enthusiastic supporters would not claim that there has been any serious – or even casual – attempt to address the chronic inefficiency and overstaffing of the public sector. It’s a fail.
Next, what about those power outages. Again there are measurement problems. Clearly the situation is better than it was at the time of the last election but few would say that power cuts have been reduced by as much as half. It seems fair to award a half point for a job half done
Finally, Balochistan. The insurgency may be weaker in Balochistan compared to 2013 but that wasn’t the test. The benchmark was looking for both devolved power and less military power. In reality the military remains firmly in change. It’s another fail.
So, one and half out of four. Better than I thought. And there are still two and a half years to go before the final verdict is in.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @OwenBennettJone