Pakistan’s new Muslim League government, led by two-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is facing a bad economy, a paralyzed energy sector, public health threats from polio and measles, and the continuing spread of extremism, said Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Mr. Kugelman said Prime Minister Sharif, who will take office on May 25th, is a businessman able to “invite the IMF to come back in and request another tranche for the IMF,” but he won’t change the culture that is allowing extremists to act with impunity. “I don’t think any civilian leader in Pakistan is in a position to do this,” he said. “Ultimately, this is something that the army, or that the security establishment, has to deal with.”
Mr. Kugelman related a story where masked men beat several girls with iron rods for not having their heads properly covered while the police looked on. “And you’d expect the police to rush in there and deal with it, but nothing happened. And later, one policeman admitted to the Pakistani media that he’d received orders from above to not do anything.”
"When militants commit attacks, perpetrators need to be tracked down and persecuted, but this doesn’t happen," he said.
Mr. Kugelman said the military in Pakistan still dictates foreign policy, though its role is changing. “The military is a very different institution than it was 20 years ago, 10 years ago, even 5 years ago," he said. "This election was significant not only because it was the first transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another, but also because it was the first time the military was not really involved with in the elections."
Mr. Kugelman said he didn't think the elections would have much of an effect on US-Pakistan relations. “The question we really need to be asking is what happens later in the year when there’s a transition in the military leadership, when General [Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani retires, and there’s a new military leadership,” he said.
One potential spoiler for US-Pakistan relations is that the local government in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan, could be formed by Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice party. "Imran Khan has very starkly during the campaign expressed very different views on militancy and drones than the US would have wanted," he said. "I think that the United States and other countries are very concerned about the prospects of Imran Khan’s government taking over in that province."
As to why Imran Khan didn’t do better in the elections despite using social media to attract hundreds of thousands of people to his rallies, Mr. Kugelman said it was because social media does not play the same role in Pakistan as it does in Arab Spring countries. “Basically, he was depending on the Facebook generation to sweep him into power, and you can’t do that in Pakistan, because the Facebook generation does not represent the masses. It represents a tiny percentage of the population,” he said.
The interview was conducted by Nadia Mughal, Research Assistant at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Nadia Mughal: We’re pleased to welcome Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, based in Washington D.C. Michael, thank you for speaking to the Global Observatory.
On May 11th, Pakistan held national elections marking its first democratic transition of power from one civilian government to another–a historic milestone, given Pakistan’s turbulent political history. The elections signal the beginning of the Pakistan’s Muslim League government, led by two-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. What are some of the key domestic challenges facing the new national government?
Michael Kugelman: Thank you Nadia, it’s a pleasure to talk with you today.
Let me identify four major domestic challenges facing Sharif as he comes into power. The first one is really the one we hear the most about, and that’s militancy, certainly. Pakistan is no longer a country where there’s extremism in the so-called tribal areas, in the hinterlands, and something that the rest of the country can forget about. We’ve gotten to the point now where its tentacles have spread to all of the major urban areas, from Karachi, the biggest city, which has essentially become a new haven for the Pakistani Taliban, to Punjab, the populous province of Pakistan, the province where the government is headquartered, where the military is headquartered. In the southern parts of Punjab, you have violent sectarian groups all based there. Punjab, of course, happens to be the stronghold of the PML-N party, Nawaz’s party. And militants essentially operate with impunity in Pakistan, so that’s a clear challenge that is going to have to be dealt with.
A second one is the economy, and this is arguably the most immediate challenge. Pakistan, as I understand it, only has about five weeks worth of foreign reserves. It’s in big trouble. So, I think one of the first things Sharif will probably have to do is invite the IMF to come back in and request another tranche for the IMF. That’s going to be key.