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June 3, 2008

Looking to the future


June 3, 2008

The dangerous internal tension in Pakistan prior to the Feb 18 general election inspired commentaries in the west about the imminent collapse of the Pakistani state. Like Iraq, some US strategists even demanded that American US soldiers be put on the ground in Pakistan. But the Pakistanis proved everyone wrong when the election passed peacefully. There was hope that the country would finally return to parliamentary democracy.

Yet three months later, hope is fast eroding that stability will return anytime soon. The US played a role in this mess by twisting the arm of President Musharraf and forcing political change at a speed that the country could not absorb without getting off-balance. Pakistan had also proven in recent years that it holds tremendous economic potential in addition to being a strong military power. For the past five years and until last year, it had the best economic growth figures in Asia. This singular achievement is under attack since last year and has reached dangerous levels now. Foreign reserves are depleting fast and there is no sign that Pakistani politicians are capable of dealing with the inherent weaknesses of the parliamentary democracy that the country practises. These are scaring investors away. The politics of revenge trumps everything and we are fast becoming a nation excessively focused on the past.

The military, like the politicians, does not hold a magic wand to solve the country's challenges. But the institution – which is strong, nationalistic, and forward-looking – has the best contingency planning abilities and human resources than any other institution in Pakistan today. However, a typical military takeover will not help now. Drastic changes in the constitution, political system and the composition of national politics hold the only key to stability.

Except Afghanistan, almost all of Pakistan's neighbours – Iran, the Gulf, China, and India – are well on their way to strong economic growth. The

political systems in these nations, despite being different, do no offer loopholes that allow for domestic instability or foreign interference. The objective is to create a government that is able to project its interests and strengths outwards while maintaining a robust internal political system that creates and breeds leadership and focuses on the future.

Parliamentary democracy with its multiple centres of power is not suited to Pakistan and the offices of the prime minister and the provincial chief ministers can be abolished in favour of a strong presidential democracy. This will strengthen accountability, reduce tensions, and ensure smooth policy execution. The system of local government can be expanded in the shape of increasing the number of provinces, each headed by a governor and a locally-elected parliament. This way both responsibility and prosperity will be transferred to local voters. There are several blueprints on this idea in the drawers of many think-tanks in the country. This might be a good time to dust them off.

In addition to this, tough reforms will have to target the political parties. The regular holding of a transparent internal election has to become a prerequisite for any party to qualify for participating in national elections. This will allow fresh leaders to emerge. New legislation will have to be introduced to regulate party finances and expenditure. Islamabad will have to become more organized on the economy.

Instead of becoming prey to foreign saboteurs and outside-funded NGOs, our youth need to see Pakistan turn into the best land of opportunity there is. We need to create opportunities in sports, music, culture and business. The boom in privately-held television industry, for example, was possible, ironically, only when a military ruler took the initiative.

Finally, reviving the faith in Pakistani nationalism can provide enough push for this reform plan. Nations need to have a sense of destiny to move forward. With a great history going back a millennium, and beyond that in ancient times, and with great cultural and martial traditions, Pakistanis are the splendid product of Central, South and West Asia with a distinct identity of their own. Our schools and the media can change the nation's mindset of we all put our minds to it.

Given where the country stands today, and regardless of the idealism of Westminster democracy, putting Pakistan on the right track is not possible for the politicians alone. Nor can the military pull it off by itself. A successful, stable and prosperous Pakistan depends on a civilized and reformed political system with defined rules of the game, backed by a strong military commitment in the background for the near future to ensure the continuity of the new system.

The writer works for Geo TV. Email: [email protected]

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