Of the many challenges facing Pakistan – a strategically important, nuclear-armed nation of 241 million people – perhaps the prevailing one is its ailing economy.
One consequence of this, a lack of resources to adequately invest in key infrastructure, has had dire results. The loss of at least 30 lives on Sunday in a train accident in Nawabshah, south-east Pakistan – which took place a day after another train derailed between Karachi and the city of Sialkot – is a tragic illustration of the reality that Pakistani governments have for years been trying to secure funds to upgrade the rail network.
Therefore, last month’s IMF approval of $3 billion in financial aid for Pakistan is welcome. The fund warns that the country has large fiscal and external deficits, rising inflation and eroded reserve buffers in the current financial year. A report from the US Institute of Peace in April claimed there was a “real danger that Pakistan could default on its debt, which could lead to intensifying political turmoil amid already surging terrorism”. The IMF deal is Pakistan’s 23rd with the organisation.
An immediate disbursement of about $1.2 billion is welcome but comes at a moment of acute volatility for Pakistan in other areas. Climate change, water scarcity, floods, power cuts, separatism and cross-border extremism are just a few of the considerable problems the government must grapple with. But these are taking place as the country’s leadership heads into a transitional phase.
This week is expected to witness the dissolution of parliament ahead of elections scheduled for October or November this year. However, there is already uncertainty about the new polls, with reports that the recently released results of Pakistan’s first digital census taken from March to May could delay the general election. The governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Haji Ghulam Ali, told The National there was a possibility that it might not be held as expected because of a government decision that constituencies should be redrawn to reflect the census results.
Adding to this volatility is the conviction of Imran Khan last week for illegally selling state gifts given to him as prime minister while he was in office between 2018 and 2022. A three-year jail sentence has raised questions over his eligibility to contest a general election and angered his many supporters who accuse the current leadership of the country of political persecution. Meanwhile, the military continues to play an influential role in Pakistan’s politics.
These are all developments with a backdrop of considerable security problems, such as the malign presence of ISIS in parts of the country. More than 60 people were killed earlier this month when a suicide bomber struck an election campaign rally being staged by supporters of politician Fazal-ur-Rehman in the northern district of Bajaur, where the military spent years fighting the Pakistani Taliban.
This array of challenges would be an unenviable position for any country to find itself in, particularly one as important as Pakistan. Now is the time for the leaders of the country to forge a path ahead – and for its steadfast friends to maintain their focus and support. In January, the UAE renewed its commitment to Pakistan’s people with a $3 billion financial assistance package. Islamabad will continue to need the backing of its friends as it tries to find a way to address its complex and interrelated problems – the consequences of which have implications far beyond the country’s borders.