Domestic developments

The Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) government, led by prime minister Nawaz Sharif, is now well into its third year in power.

In 2013, Sharif won a decisive mandate on promises that he would revive the economy and govern more competently than had the rival Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) over the previous five years. However, prices on basic goods and levels of unemployment remain too high for comfort for many ordinary Pakistanis. Power cuts, which the PML-N promised to end, remain common. There has also so far not been much improvement in the central state’s capacity to collect tax – another of the government’s manifesto pledges.

The PML-N’s tenure so far has arguably seen a weakening of civilian authority – an area where the PPP claims it made some limited progress between 2008 and 2013 – in a country where the military has always been a ‘shadow state’. Talk of another military take-over has recently revived amongst commentators, but a coup seems highly unlikely – the military seems to have decided that ruling directly is no longer worth the candle. However, the speculation is a sign that all is not well in Pakistan’s body politic.

In recent months, Sharif has launched an anti-corruption drive, with over 1,000 cases being prepared against public officials and businessmen. But some fear that the anti-corruption drive will turn out to be politically-motivated and that the opposition will be its main target.

Pakistan is currently holding several rounds of local government elections (the final round is on 5 December). For the first time political parties are being allowed openly to put forward candidates in the local government elections. The results will be the first electoral test of the popularity of the PML-N government. However, given the strength of Pakistan’s patronage politics, in many areas traditional party loyalties can be expected to determine the results almost regardless of the central government’s performance.

One of the biggest achievements of the previous PPP-led government was the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which transferred further powers to the provinces from the centre. However, there remain many challenges in turning theory into practice. The central government announced several months ago that it is postponing a new financial ‘award’ to the provinces, which the latter hoped would increase their share of resources.

Pakistan’s human rights record under the PML-N government continues to be subject to strong criticism by human rights groups. At the end of 2014 the PML-N government lifted a 2008 moratorium on the death penalty. Officially it did so only for terrorism-related offences but in practice those convicted of other offences have been executed too.

The overall security situation within the country has improved markedly during 2015. Soon after the PML-N took office, the military finally launched military operations in North Waziristan, having appeared reluctant for years to do so. These have seriously weakened the Pakistan Taliban and other militant groups.

However, the International Crisis Group has suggested that the Pakistan army is still making a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jihadi groups, with groups more focused on India such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (now called Jamaat-ud-Dawa) being largely exempted from facing military operations, as well as long-standing allies involved with the Afghan Taliban such as the ‘Haqqani Network’.

Although there have been some claims to the contrary, the indications are that Islamic State (IS) has not yet established a significant presence in Pakistan. But army chief General Raheel Sharif has said that IS now poses a bigger long-term threat to the region than al-Qaida. The army has also been conducting operations in Karachi to clamp down on criminal and terrorist activities in the city.

International relations

Debate continues in the US about its relationship with Pakistan, which is estimated to have cost US $30 billion since 2002; for now it remains one of ambivalent interdependence. There have been suggestions that Pakistan is lobbying for a civil nuclear deal with the US that mirrors the one reached between the US and India. At the moment, this looks unlikely.

The UK and Pakistan have a good bilateral relationship – the British High Commissioner recently reiterated that the UK remains “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Pakistan – but there are sometimes tensions beneath the surface. For example, on terrorism, the UK government position is that it remains “fully committed to working in partnership with Pakistan”. However, when the Pakistan authorities released one of the alleged planners of the 2008 Mumbai attacks on bail earlier this year, the UK government expressed deep concern. In 2015/16, Pakistan is the largest single recipient of UK aid money. The project budget for this year is £340.6 million.

India-Pakistan relations remain fraught with danger and mistrust, not least over Kashmir. Since October 2014, there have been regular exchanges of fire between their troops across the ‘Line of Control’ which runs through contested Kashmir. In September, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif launched a new “peace initiative” India has responded coolly, focusing again on the need for Pakistan to address the threat of terrorism effectively first.

There has been an uneasy and partial rapprochement between Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the former agreeing to cooperate more effectively on security and intelligence matters and undertaking to encourage the Afghan Taliban to join peace talks. There remain considerable divisions within the Pakistan elite (in particular between the civilian and military branches) on the issue of supporting the Afghan peace process. For parts of Pakistan’s security establishment, Afghanistan remains primarily a resource to be deployed in Pakistan’s existential struggle with India.

China has long been a key ally of Pakistan, although it does not take sides in the Kashmir dispute. It is now set to become the leading economic partner for Pakistan over the period 2016-20 as a result of the US$ 46 billion ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’, which involves massive investments in the spheres of energy, transport and telecommunications. But there remains considerable local mistrust about these initiatives in Balochistan, the most immediately affected province.