Pakistan may be heading into another of its cycles of mass unrest and political instability. Government is a patronage-based system, with not nearly enough patronage to go around. Other factors, including democracy and religion, are present, but all are colored by the politics of patronage.
No Pakistani regime ever has enough jobs and money to satisfy both the political elites and large numbers of the impoverished young male population. Sooner or later these forces of discontent come together in unrest that eventually spreads to northern Punjab, where most of the army is recruited.
Senior generals, fearing splits in their own ranks, then decide to execute, or manage, a change of regime; the new government reshuffles the patronage deck; and the whole cycle begins again. This pattern of military response to unrest applies just as much to periods of military-led regimes, such as the present one of President Pervez Musharraf, as it does to civilian ones.
Pakistan is menaced by conflict in Afghanistan, pro-Taliban unrest in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, the spread of Islamist extremism elsewhere in the country and pressure from Washington, which could place intolerable strain on national unity.
On the positive side, Pakistan under General Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz, prime minister, has enjoyed good economic management and growth rates that are the highest for a generation and among the world’s strongest. If only this development can be sustained, then Pakistani society and politics over time will be transformed.
There is talk of a deal between Gen. Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister and leader of the largest opposition party, the Pakistan People’s party (PPP). Such a deal is being strongly urged in private by Washington, which is anxious that all the secular forces in Pakistan unite with each other and the security forces in the struggle against the Taliban and Islamist extremism.
Given the mass protests at the government’s attempt to remove Pakistan’s chief justice, the PPP may now feel that Gen. Musharraf’s power is waning so quickly that it can simply aim at mobilizing mass protest to force him to step down and compel the military high command to accept a return of Ms. Bhutto to power. If the PPP and Gen. Musharraf fail to pursue a deal, however, this would be a dreadful mistake on both their parts. Previous experience suggests that unless the present military-dominated government broadens its political base, it will preside over growing disorder that will lead to the generals themselves insisting on a change of government. On the other hand, Pakistani civilian governments must have the army’s full support if they are to govern effectively. The army is by far the most efficient and important part of the state. In future, every government will depend on the military’s help to combat extremist violence.
Again and again, Pakistani civilian governments have first sought to diminish the military’s power, then called on it to control unrest and run key parts of the state — and then, inevitably, been replaced by the military.
The PPP should also remember that while it remains the largest party, it is only one section of Pakistan’s secular forces. The latest clashes in Karachi were between supporters of the PPP and a secular ethnic party, the MQM. Last week saw a riot by PPP supporters in Peshawar after one of their local leaders was murdered, allegedly by members of another secular ethnic party. Pakistan at the best of times is difficult to govern. Anyone seeking to do so should remember they will need all the help they can get.
Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and a former senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
This article has been shortened from its original version, which first appeared under the same name in the Financial Times on May 16, 2007. Click here to view the original article.
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