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Pakistan in need of a life raft

16 January 2013

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Alicia Mollaun is a PhD scholar in the Public Policy and Governance stream of Crawford School. She is currently residing in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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ALICIA MOLLAUN looks back over a difficult year for Pakistan that has seen the ousting of a Prime Minister, an energy crisis and escalating sectarian violence.

Politically, 2012 will be remembered as the year the judiciary took on the government and won, successfully ousting Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on contempt of court charges.

His dismissal was the result of a long, ongoing battle in which the courts demanded the prime minister write to the Swiss authorities to reopen corruption investigations dating back to the 1990s into President Asif Ali Zardari.

A thaw in India–Pakistan relations came in 2012, as both sides worked together on confidence building measures such as loosening visa restrictions and easing cross-border travel restrictions in the hopes of improving trade and economic ties.

Pakistan’s economy continues to be plagued by micro and macro problems. Tax collection is still meager at around 10 per cent of GDP. According to the Federal Board of Revenue, while over 3 million people in Pakistan have National Tax Numbers, less than 1 million pay any tax — for a population of over 180 million, this is alarming.

Pakistan remains in a fully-fledged energy crisis. In 2012 there were few meaningful policies deployed to address the countless problems weighing on the sector. During summer, rural areas of Pakistan are still without power for up to 20 hours per day. During winter, extensive gas load shedding sends many Pakistanis back in time as they use firewood for cooking and heating. Businesses are closing and industry foundering as blackouts cripple the manufacturing and textile sectors. Government policy solutions to these issues has been superficial at best.

Pakistan’s society remains riven by ethnic and religious divisions. For the first 11 months of 2012, 466 people were killed in 161 sectarian attacks. These figures are remarkably higher than in 2011, when 203 people were killed in 30 attacks. Karachi was the epicentre of ethnic tensions in 2012, with terrorism-related incidents reported on 301 days out of 333 days, with most days recording multiple incidents of ethnic or politically motivated crimes.

An archaic blasphemy law continues to be enacted against Pakistan’s minority groups, particularly Christians. In August, a 14 year-old mentally disabled girl was arrested for allegedly desecrating pages of a religious textbook used to teach the Quran to children. In October, a girls’ school in Lahore was burned to the ground after a teacher at the school was accused of blasphemy.

Piety also played a role in one of the major security incidents of 2012: the riots against the YouTube video ‘The Innocence of Muslims’. Pakistan was relatively slower to react to the video, with major protests throughout the country erupting a week or so after protests in the Middle East. The government, proving its religiosity, announced that Friday 21 September would be a public holiday or an official ‘day of expression of love for the Prophet’, to allow Pakistanis to ‘peacefully’ protest the film. Peaceful protests did not eventuate and 18 people were killed, more than one hundred were injured, and public property sustained millions of dollars worth of damage.

Weeks later, Pakistan was in the spotlight again when schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban on her way to school, targeted for her strong advocacy for girls’ education in Pakistan. Religious extremism is not going away in Pakistan as power becomes more concentrated in conservative voices and policies. The Malala shooting did little to galvanise change in Pakistan, despite widespread protests against the shooting. The government condemned the shooting, but did not condemn the Taliban, leaving many analysts concerned about Pakistan’s commitment to eradicating extremist networks from its soil.

Security did not improve in Pakistan in 2012. More civilians were killed in terrorist attacks in 2012 than in any other year since the commencement of comprehensive data collection in 2003, with an average of 251 civilians killed per month (for the first 11 months of 2012). In mid-December, nine polio workers were shot dead in Karachi and Peshawar, forcing the WHO and the UN to halt their polio drive. The Taliban believe that the West is using polio vaccines to sterilise Muslims or that the administration of vaccines is used as a cover for espionage.

Looking forward, 2013 will be an important year for Pakistan and its burgeoning democracy with federal elections due to be held early in the new year. These elections will be the first time in Pakistan’s history that a democratically elected government is replaced by another democratically elected government.

Pakistan’s biggest existential threat in 2013 and beyond will come from within its borders, not from outside threats. Its woeful economic situation and poor provision of basic services is likely to fuel social unrest even further next year. There are no signs that extremism is abating in Pakistan. Pakistani policy makers must turn their attention towards fixing the internal security, economic and social problems wreaking havoc. These are far more dangerous for both Pakistan and the West than the war going on next door in Afghanistan that those in the West seem more concerned about.

This piece was originally published on East Asia Forum as part of a special feature: 2012 in review and the year ahead

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