Pakistan’s Second Last Chance

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

July 29, 2008


While Pakistan is often labeled as a failed state it is more accurately characterized as a flailing state: searching for a political framework that enables it to cope with its most important domestic and external challenges. Since the 1950s Pakistan was governed by a narrowly-based military-political elite. With policy steered by the generals, India became a foreign policy obsession, domestic corruption and incompetence contributed to a failure to transform Pakistan’s economy, and the state’s key social indicators— literacy, the role of women, education—reveal that Pakistan fell behind Bangladesh, its former East Wing, once regarded as a political and developmental basketcase.

Last month’s election in Pakistan has been correctly hailed as a turning point. It demonstrated that the state is not faced with an immediate Islamist takeover or a civil war. The election (watched by thousands of outside observers) was peaceful, even if preceded by several suicide bombings. The extreme Islamists were defeated and regional parties will play some role in the new coalition. The combination of resurgent democratic forces, outside encouragement, and the empowering role of new technologies—the internet played a critical role—all contributed to an election outcome that was as welcome as it was surprising.

Pakistan now has still another “last chance” to get things right. My 2004 book argued that Pakistan’s critical moment would come when a new government replaced the flawed regime of General/President Pervaiz Musharraf. That moment has now arrived. While its initial performance is admirable the PPPPML coalition cannot take on the larger challenges alone. Outside powers have contributed to the distortion of Pakistani politics for decades, it is in their interest that they now play a positive role in assisting Pakistanis to achieve a more or less democratic order that can cope with several critical challenges.