Pakistan's enormous challenges

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Photo Reuters
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Photo Reuters
While what happens in Pakistan feels distant from New Zealand concerns, the future of that nation has wide significance.

It is the fifth or sixth most populous nation in the world (behind China, India, the United States, Indonesia and perhaps Brazil), is a nuclear power and is located in a strategically important and unstable part of the world.

It has only moderate trade with New Zealand - exports worth $87million and imports $72million in 2016 - but this is growing apace.

The numbers of Pakistani New Zealanders are also climbing, probably past 8000. New Zealand MP Ashraf Choudhary (2002-11) was born in Pakistan, and the two nations share Commonwealth membership and cricket.

Pakistan also has a large and growing middle class.

Pakistan's greatest cricketer and world superstar Imran Khan has come to prominence as expected prime minister following Pakistan's election late last week.

He is remembered particularly as the Pakistani captain who won the World Cup one-day final against England in Melbourne in 1992. He was a ferocious fast bowler and classy batsman. Some say he was cricket's second-best all-rounder yet, behind only West Indian Sir Garfield Sobers.

He was schooled in England and graduated from Oxford with an honours degrees, having studied philosophy, economics and politics.

From a Pashtun family, he had a playboy image in his bachelor days. He has, however, embraced a devout conservative Islamic persona in recent times.

Optimists point to his desire to combat corruption, a scourge of Pakistan, using his charm and his charisma. The country is managing to change its government through the ballot box, not the norm in a land of frequent military intervention.

He gave a conciliatory speech after the election and he pledged to try to end the Kashmir differences with India as well as improving relationships with Pakistan's big creditor, China. He received support right across the country, which is rare.

Mr Khan, however, has displayed over the years erratic behaviour and a range of views. Sometimes it is difficult to know exactly what he actually stands for.

He has, post election, called for an Islamic welfare state to help the poor, as well as wanting reform of weak governance and the elimination of graft. But he received support from the military and the intelligence services, themselves deep in patronage.

How can Mr Khan realistically tackle the huge and rising national debt? The electricity network is woeful and jobs hard to find. He also has to construct a coalition with others in Parliament. Add in overpopulation, social issues galore and high illiteracy rates, and Mr Khan has quite some challenges.

The relationship with the United States will remain difficult. Aid to Pakistan has been cut and Mr Khan has recognised the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, despite vehement criticism of United States' policies in the region in the past, notably the drone attacks, he has called for improvements.

The election itself was riven by accusations of malfeasance. Nevertheless, and despite violence and a bombing on election day, many millions voted, included women in many places.

The previous prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, had challenged the military's hostility to India and its support for terrorist groups. He was then singled out on corruption charges. How independent from the military will Mr Khan be able to be?

It is all to easy to be cynical about Mr Khan and what he might achieve. It is hard to see that much changing for the better.

Nevertheless, the rest of the world should give him and his party cautious benefit of the doubt in the meantime in the face of Pakistan's enormous financial, structural, social and political difficulties.

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