On June 11th, 2014 the Center for International Private Enterprises hosted a panel discussion entitled “Strengthening Democracy through Economic Reform In Pakistan: Challenges and Opportunities.” Last May, the Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP) became the first democratic government to serve out a full term in the country’s 66-year history of independence. This historic accomplishment created a great deal of optimism and speculation about democracy and development in Pakistan. In light of this accomplishment, it may be important to question how successful democracy has been effective in Pakistan and whether or not democracy has promoted development.
The recent terrorist attack at the Karachi Airport, the arrest of Pakistani political leader Altaf Hussain in the UK, and the Karachi Riots in 2010 only highlight a share of the complicated political, economic, and social issues shaking the country’s fragile security. According to the panelists, the outlook for Pakistan is very pessimistic, unless the government recognizes these issues and takes action as soon as possible. According to Dr. Ehtisham Ahmad of the London School of Economics, the Pakistani government must address two core issues: the financing of political parties, and the management of state finances. The PPP and PLMN have both neglected these major issues, hindering institutional and political development.
The lack of a formal mechanism for funding political parties has led to politicians looking for funding from wealthy groups and individuals. As a result, purchasing votes and favors has become a regular occurrence. These factors have created an inefficient and corrupt tax system that does not generate revenue or demographic information. In order for a democratic country to run properly, tax revenue and demographic information is heavily relied upon. According to panelist Moin Fudda of CIPE Pakistan, the government missed its tax collection target by 77% last year, which indicates a need for major reform. The graph below displays tax revenue for Pakistan and similar countries in South Asia. The data shows the decline of tax revenue in Pakistan over the last sixteen years to one of the lowest tax revenue percentages in South Asia.
The population living below the poverty line has been hit the hardest. The central government has given the provinces the responsibility of providing public services for its citizens, such as healthcare and education, but the inefficient tax system has left them without enough funding. The provinces have no way of providing viable public services unless they do not pay taxes, inevitably leading to a tax war within the government. This inability to provide basic services has also hindered development.
Dr. Ahmad stresses that these issues need to be tackled immediately, but Pakistan has quite shockingly done nothing to find a viable solution. If the Pakistani government won’t act, then what else can be done to remedy the situation? Dr. Ahmad believes that foreign investors can press for a level playing field in order to incentivize reform. The Pakistani government needs to implement a strong corporate income tax and provide public services for the poor, especially education. Most importantly, these core issues must be taken seriously by the government, and the population must strongly push for reform and public services. Despite these issues, the economy has performed quite well and has seen solid growth in the past four years according to the data below.
At a time when political and economic unrest is very high, people are wondering whether this growth is due to the development of an informal economy that is quietly keeping the formal economy afloat . This question is of great relevance and will unfold in the near future as the political demographics of the country either stabilize or spin out of control.