In 61 years of independence, 24 men – and one woman – have served as prime minister.
Eight have been caretaker appointments, four have been dismissed, four have resigned, two have been deposed by a coup, one indicted for corruption and another assassinated.
Zulfikar Bhutto was deposed and then hanged. His daughter Benazir was elected twice, dismissed twice and later assassinated. And three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif was dismissed, reinstated, deposed and disqualified.
As track records go, this is on a par with the six wives of Henry VIII. Yet there is no shortage of politicians – including Benazir’s 29-year-old son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – seeking a mandate in the general election this month.
The poll comes at a pivotal moment for Pakistan, a country with a population of 200m (60% of whom are under the age of 25) and an economy that is growing, almost inexplicably, by 5-6% a year.
Why inexplicably? Consider the problems that beset Pakistan. The country has just been reinstalled on an international watch list for not doing enough to stop money laundering and terrorist financing, prompting American threats to suspend aid. And the national energy crisis, which Nawaz Sharif promised to solve in 2013, rumbles on.
Things have improved – the country generates 31,000MW, 35% more power than it did five years ago – but eight hour blackouts in the capital, Karachi, are not uncommon. As a rule of thumb, one third of the electricity generated is lost in transmission, stolen or not paid for. An efficient energy industry would add, it is estimated, two percentage points to the country’s economic growth.
Reclusive Pakistani billionaire Habibullah Khan, who has just made a significant investment in the energy sector, told Pakistan Today: “Today, our average cost is 12.96 cents per kilowatt. Bangladesh is at nine cents, India at ten. We need to bring the cost down to eight cents if our manufacturing industry is to be competitive locally and in the export market.”
Pakistan’s greatest contribution to the global supply chain is as an exporter of textiles (especially cotton), clothing and cereals. Last year, it spent $13.7bn importing fuel. Investment in renewable energy is critical as, on current projections, it will have no reserves of oil or gas left by 2032.
Many of these challenges are being largely ignored in a strange election campaign where Nawaz Sharif, still influential in the Muslim League, has been banned from holding elected office because of past misdemeanours and Imran Khan, the cricket star who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, may also be disqualified if convicted, by Pakistan’s Supreme Court, of “moral turpitude”. If the Muslim League wins, the most likely scenario is that Nawaz’s brother Shehbaz will become prime minister.
Such an outcome would be deeply ironic – corruption is probably the campaign’s hottest issue and the Panama Papers showed that the families of both Sharif brothers owned millions of dollars worth of property in the UK and elsewhere.
One of Nawaz Sharif’s most grandiose schemes was the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a cornerstone of China’s One Belt One Road and Maritime Silk Road schemes. The project is so significant – headline figures for investments vary, but they could add up to $54bn – it even features in China’s 13th economic five-year-plan.
The collaboration promises to improve Pakistan’s roads, railways, ports, energy supply and agriculture – and, not entirely coincidentally, help attract investment to western China, especially Xinjiang province, where tensions between Han Chinese and the Ulghur Muslim minority have turned violent.
Yet on the ground, CPEC’s benefits aren’t as obvious. One of the largest, and earliest, investments has been in the strategically important port of Gwadar, which may house a coal-fired power plant, a hospital, a university and several special economic zones.
Pakistan’s Parliament has just voted to lay around 400 miles of fibre optic cables between Gwadar and Karachi. As laudable as that might sound, the residents have more pressing concerns – last month, they were fighting in the streets to obtain clean drinking water.
There are also legitimate concerns about how the expansion of Gwadar – which China will operate for 40 years, without paying taxes – will impact the 150,000 fishermen who are the mainstay of the existing local economy. Fears were exacerbated when a Pakistan minister admitted that China will scoop up 91% of the profits from the port. One Pakistan senator described CPEC as a form of colonialism, saying: “Another East India company is in the offing; national interests are not being protected.”
Yet for Pakistan’s government, deepening bonds with China may prove useful as the US, its traditional ally, becomes more hostile. The relationship between Pakistan and America is based on trust and understanding: Pakistan doesn’t trust the US and the US doesn’t understand Pakistan.
Donald Trump’s New Year’s Day Twitter rant – “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33bn in aid over the last 15 years and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit” – undiplomatically expressed the frustration many American presidents have felt with its Asian ally.
Yet the threat to end US aid reinforced Pakistan’s doubts about American long-term commitment to the region. As General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, former head of Pakistan’s army, told an American ambassador: “If you think we are going to turn the Taliban and Haqqanis and others into mortal enemies and watch you walk out the door, you are completely crazy.”
The end of American aid – most of which finances the war on terror – would not spark a recession. The collapse of CPEC almost certainly would. The danger here is that, given Pakistan’s long struggle with corruption, that public – and political – support for this economic transformation is undermined by revelations of bribes, scams and kickbacks.
Salman Rushdie, whose novel Shame is an indispensable guide to Pakistan’s political complexities, summed up the country’s modus operandi once when he observed: “If you know people, you can get anywhere in Pakistan – even into jail.”
Corruption is so endemic that one minor candidate for office has even mooted legalising it. Transparency International ranks Pakistan 116 out of 180 nations when it comes to graft and reports that, typically, companies expect to pay 8.2% of the value of a public contract to officials to win the business.
Khan’s pledge to end ministerial corruption on his first day in office is a crowd pleaser. Yet voters with long memories may feel they have heard all this before.
In 1973, Zulfikar Bhutto fired 1,600 corrupt civil servants. Twenty years later, when his daughter Benazir held the same office for the second time, one minister estimated that corruption was so rampant it amounted to 20-25% of Pakistan’s GDP.
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