Pakistan’s Elections: A Victory for Development? (And What the US Should Do Next)

May 13, 2013

This is a joint post with Alexis Sowa.

Last weekend marked the first time in Pakistan's 60-plus year history that a democratically elected government completed its term. This is a major achievement for Pakistan. It also raises the possibility of a new chapter in US-Pakistan relations because a new civilian government led by the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, the winning party) might prove to be surprisingly open to US help in addressing Pakistan's huge development challenges.

This is true despite Nawaz Sharif's anti-American rhetoric during the election campaign, and despite the party's insistence in 2011 that USAID close its provincial office in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, the country's most populous and prosperous province, which the PML-N controls. How can that be?

The PML-N has done a better job of delivering services to the people of Punjab than the other parties running Pakistan's other provinces. One example is education where, with strong provincial leadership and support from donors like DFID and the World Bank, the Punjab has made impressive progress. Punjab is also one of the few provinces where the incumbent provincial government was not thrown out, due at least in part to the delivery of improved services to its people. Maybe progress in Punjab bodes well for a renewed effort nation-wide.

This matters because Pakistan, even when it had growth, did not have development. Though richer than Bangladesh in average income, its social indicators are much worse. In Pakistan only 61 percent of girls aged 15-29 can read, compared to almost 80 percent in Bangladesh, despite GDP per capita levels that are 50 percent greater.

This is not to suggest that US-Pakistan relations will be smooth sailing. Pakistan is a nuclear power with a terrorism problem at home and millions of unemployed and frustrated young people. There will be risks to a development partnership - as there have been in the last five years. But they are risks well worth taking. With a newly elected civilian government in place, and the military apparently willing to stand aside, the United States has a good opportunity to renew the strategic dialogue on development challenges begun with the prior government.

The administration should take two steps right away:

  • First, it should ask the Congress for a no-cost extension from five to ten years of the strategic partnership established under the umbrella of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation (see here for Senator Lugar's recent support for this idea).
  • Second, the White House should ask the State Department for a review of lessons of the last five years regarding the US development strategy and program in Pakistan (for our lessons and report card on the "strategy", go here).

Our recommendations in a 2012 report included: extending KLB; reducing annual aid spending, where the United States is handicapped compared to other donors without drones; channeling more aid money through other donors who have shown proven results (and don't have the drone problem); and putting more effort into working with Pakistan's government on trade and investment, and with Pakistan's experts on its daunting technical, financial, and (above all) political challenges in critical reforms of its tax, energy, and agriculture sectors.

Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi capitalist, is expected to push for increased trade and improved relations with India - an important partnership that could help jumpstart Pakistan's stagnant economy, and one the United States could encourage. The United States could also work more with the provincial governments, including in Punjab and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the party of former cricket star Imran Khan is the likely victor, giving the fledgling PTI party a chance to prove its capacity to govern.

The US Congress and the American people should not underestimate the resilience of Pakistan as a country and a society. While Nawaz Sharif won a solid victory, the close race for second place between Imran Khan's rookie PTI party and the incumbent and entrenched PPP signals that an increasingly urban and young population wants to upend the ossified, traditional power centers of Pakistani society. Pakistan has a large, highly competent, and well-educated, urban middle class - millions of Pakistanis working in the media, academia, public service, and civil society organizations. What they want is a stronger and more rules-based civilian government.

Moreover, there has been some progress in the last couple of years. The devolution of powers and budgets to the provinces that started in 2010, though chaotic and inefficient in the short term, represents a necessary step toward making government more local and accountable - something Americans can understand. There is reasonable hope that the trade deal with India will spur investment in Pakistan and ease the tensions that have hurt both countries - and hurt Pakistan relatively more.  And this election gives renewed hope that Pakistan is developing the institutions and civil society engagement required of a functioning democracy, one that is capable of meeting the needs of its people. That would be good for Pakistan, of course; it would also be good for America.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.