ISLAMABAD— As Pakistan prepares for national elections next month, the new government’s plans for reviving the fragile economy are for many a higher priority than addressing militant violence. Given the economic track record of the last administration, few are hopeful for change.
Zafar Saeed runs a vocational training center in a low-income neighborhood of the Pakistani capital. For more than a decade, his institution has trained thousands for work in an increasingly difficult economy. Now as his own business struggles from power cuts and inflation, Saeed blames the government for the situation.
“Our organization has suffered major financial losses particularly over the past five years because prolonged power outages have not allowed us to perform our activities. The other main reason is inflation because people can no longer afford to pay for their fees to learn income-generating skills,” said Saeed.
Lacking political will
Many share Saeed’s view. Street protests against chronic power outages are routine in Pakistan, where power cuts can now last an entire day.
Ashfaque Hassan Khan, a professor at Islamabad’s NUST Business School, said, “We are facing economic challenges and the reason for this is that for five years the economy has never been on the radar of the government.”
Khan said part of the problem has been too little political will to fix the national tax system.
Less than one percent of Pakistan’s 180 million people pay income taxes. About 70 percent of federal lawmakers did not submit any income tax returns last year. Most of them are likely to be returned to parliament in the upcoming elections. That makes it more difficult to request assistance from Pakistan’s major donors.
“There is a genuine complaint from [the] international community because their taxpayers have started raising questions that 'why should our government give our taxpayer money to Pakistan when [the] Pakistani government doesn’t tax their own rich and influential people?'” said Khan.
Although militant attacks in Pakistan routinely make international headlines, recent public opinion surveys indicate most young people are concerned about unemployment, high inflation, power shortages and corruption.
Former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi, said these surveys also suggest Pakistanis under age 25, who make up 60 percent of the population, have grown more pessimistic about the future.
“So, the message to Pakistan’s next government is a very strong one. And that message is deal with the economy otherwise young people will opt out of the system and when young people opt out of the system and lose faith then frankly, the future prospects for any country begin to look very bleak,” said Lodhi.
To build support among the young voters who make up roughly 40 percent of the electorate, popular political parties are vowing to reduce unemployment and root out corruption.
But with opinion surveys showing extremely low favorability ratings for politicians, many voters - like Saeed - are skeptical the next government will be any different from the last one.