The general elections that took place in May 2013 in Pakistan’s Lower House of Parliament – the National Assembly – and in the provincial assemblies of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province) has introduced certain changes into the life of this large Asian nation with a population of nearly 200 million, a nation with nuclear weapons that occupies a crucially important geopolitical position in South Eurasia…
The Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), headed by Nawaz Sharif, won a landslide victory with a total of 185 seats in the National Assembly. Among the other parliamentary parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has 42 deputies, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (Pakistan Movement for Justice) – 35 seats, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (United National Movement) – 23 seats, and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) party (Assembly of Islamic Clergy) – 14 seats (the first two of these parties make up the backbone of the opposition). It is significant that in the election results, right-wing religious parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam – Fazl paled into insignificance in the country’s politics.
For the first time in the entire history of elections in Pakistan, 60 percent of voters went to the polls; threats by the Pakistan branch of the Taliban to disrupt the elections by organising a series of terrorist attacks had no effect.
It is noteworthy that the military did not interfere in the election process either; in fact they actually helped carry them out, guaranteeing order at polling stations with the provision of 70,000 military servicemen (the first such case in Pakistan’s history).
As a result, the government of the Pakistan People’s Party resigned and Nawaz Sharif has become the head of the federal cabinet of ministers for the third time, having mustered the support of 244 out of a total of 342 deputies of the Lower House. In accordance with the Constitution, the prime minister of Pakistan has very broad powers: on all domestic and foreign policy issues, the president (the official chief executive) is obliged to follow the «recommendations» of the prime minister. Nawaz Sharif and the current president of Pakistan, PPP Co-Chair Asif Ali Zardari, are long-standing political opponents, which is why experts are in no doubt that the new prime minister will do everything he can to get a candidate elected to the post of president who he will find more useful.
The key positions in the central government are held by members of the victorious PML-N party. It is interesting that the new cabinet does not yet include a minister of foreign affairs: this ministry was headed by the prime minister himself, and any practical work related to foreign policy will be carried out by his foreign affairs advisor, Sartaj Aziz. This is a clear indication that Nawaz Sharif is intending to determine the country’s foreign policy personally. It is expected that this will primarily focus on strengthening relations with its neighbouring countries.
A policy will also be carried out to strengthen relations with India. Even before the results of the election had been formally announced, Nawaz Sharif declared that «he will go to India even if he is not invited», although an invitation from India was fairly quick to arrive. At this point, the support of the prime minister’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, who for the last five years has occupied the post of Chief Minister of Punjab Province and was elected to the post again this summer, is particularly important. Shahbaz Sharif is considered to be the head of the pro-Indian lobby in Pakistan. He expresses unwavering interest in the development of economic ties with India and is a proponent of expanding trade between the two countries from US$3 billion to at least US$6 billion. In June 2013, he organised the latest trip of a large group of Pakistani businessmen to India. India and Pakistan’s media regularly publish statements by both countries’ leaders on their desire to establish good neighbourly relations. It is quite possible that, to some extent, a solution will be found to the complex Kashmir problem, as well as other bilateral issues such as use of the Indus River’s water resources and its tributaries, ownership of the Siachen Glacier and the boundaries of Sir Creek.
Anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is quite strong, although America will remain, as before, a key partner of Islamabad. Washington has great interest in Pakistan and this will become even greater after the withdrawal of the bulk of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Islamabad, which is counting on receiving American economic and military aid, also has an interest in broadening its partnership with Washington. Incidentally, immediately after Nawaz Sharif was sworn in as prime minister, the US announced its intention to help solve the most serious problem affecting Pakistan’s economy, its energy problem, by pledging to provide nearly US$1 billion.
Pakistan is also going to develop its relations with China, which is also of mutual interest. Between May and the beginning of July this year, an official visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Pakistan and a five-day (!) visit by Nawaz Sharif to China took place. Both countries agreed to expand their political, economic and military ties. Over the next 2-3 years, there are plans to increase trade between Pakistan and China from US$12 billion to US$15 billion. The Chinese, like the Americans, are ready to help Pakistan solve its energy problem, as well as expand the multifunctional port of Gwadar.
Relations with Afghanistan are also of vital importance. While the handover of security responsibility in Afghanistan to Afghan security forces is purely symbolic, acts of terrorism in Afghanistan are continuing. It should be expected that by 2014, Pakistan will be involved in a bitter fight with the Taliban.
Experts anticipate that Pakistan is also going to broaden its relations with the governments of Central Asia and Iran. Here, Islamabad’s primary interest is in the procurement of hydrocarbons and energy. However, if the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project looks like it will be realised, then the same cannot be said of projects like the TAPI pipeline (gas from Turkmenistan) and CASA-1000 (energy from Tajikistan). Afghanistan’s unclear future and a number of other unresolved issues will all have an impact on these kinds of projects.
Experts are not anticipating any rapid progress to be made regarding relations with Russia, although Islamabad’s desire to greatly extend its trade and economic cooperation with Moscow and establish closer political contacts is obvious. In his statement on the country’s key foreign policy areas made at the beginning of June 2013, Nawaz Sharif emphasised that, taking into account the multipolar structure of the modern world, he was intending to develop contacts not only with the West, but also with countries in the region as well as with Russia. There is quite a bit of common ground here, including such acute problems as drugs from Afghanistan, which are streaming into Russia through Tajikistan There is also the possibility of cooperation between Pakistan and Russia in such areas as metallurgy (expansion of the iron and steel works in Karachi, which was built with the help of the USSR), the construction of a CHP plant, power lines, railway modernisation and others.
In the economic sphere, the Pakistan government is dealing with two main problems – an energy crisis and a weak fiscal performance (as a result of mass tax evasion). On the whole, the country’s economy, as in previous years, is in a rather difficult position. In order to solve its economic problems, the government is planning to attract foreign capital and preparation of the relevant regulatory documents is already under way.
The official «Pakistan Economic Survey 2012-2013», which was published in June 2013, shows that the economy’s growth rate in the financial year ending in June has fallen (3.5 percent in comparison with 3.7 percent in the previous financial year, while the GDP growth target for 2012-2013 was 4 percent). It is not a huge drop, of course, and in view of the fact that the average population growth rate in Pakistan is nearly 2 percent per year, it even gives a growth in income per capita of 1.5 percent (in absolute numbers, this is approximately US$1400).
There are still disparities in the development of the Pakistan economy’s sectoral structure. Thus, large-scale industry shows extremely low growth rates, barely exceeding 1 percent; for the most part, industrial growth is being achieved by medium and small-scale industrial production.
Pakistan’s economic situation is being aggravated by the fact that, even taking into account the IMF and Asian Development Bank loans the country received at the beginning of July, noticeably reducing the budget deficit, which is reaching 8 percent of GDP, and covering the government’s external debt, which currently stands at US$65 billion, does not seem to be a possibility.