In a little over a year, Pakistan will go to the polls to elect a new government. Assuming the current government completes its term, the next election will mark only the second time in Pakistan’s history that power will be transferred from one democratically elected government to another (the first time being in 2013). As far as milestones go it will be an important one, underlining the maturation and strengthening of the democratic process in Pakistan after its uncertain beginnings in 2008.

For all their significance, however, the elections next year will also serve as a reminder of how the gradual entrenchment of democracy in Pakistan has thus far been more about form than substance; while the country has made some progress in consolidating and institutionalising a framework for democratic rule (through regular elections, the devolution of power from the center to the provinces and districts, the existence of reasonably independent courts, and the presence of a rambunctious media), it is clear that the PPP government that came to power in 2008, and the PML-N one that succeeded it in 2013, have failed to deliver on some key areas of reform and governance that require urgent attention.

The first of these is broadly related to the issue of accountability. Here, the problem is not simply about punishing corrupt politicians for their misdeeds; although that is obviously a matter of some importance, accountability is also about trust in the government, its functionaries, and its processes. In the past decade, it has become clear that decision-making in Pakistan remains a fundamentally opaque process, with small cabals of elites in positions of civilian and military authority exerting tremendous amounts of control over policy in the country. When it comes to foreign affairs, for example, it is well-known that the Foreign Ministry lacks both the authority and the capacity to play a lead role in managing the country’s external relations, having ceded space over time to the security establishment, with the result being an absence of any meaningful democratic input into the process. Much the same can be said of ‘development’ schemes like CPEC; as has been repeatedly pointed out by Khurram Husain in Dawn, much about China’s investment in Pakistan remains occluded by an official reluctance to discuss the precise details of the project. On matters like debt servicing and the provision of preferential treatment to Chinese companies, there are important questions that need answering with regards to the exact nature of the impact the Economic Corridor will have on Pakistan’s economy. Yet, it is one again clear that any negotiations that were undertaken to secure this project, and any deals that were made, were done so without any meaningful scrutiny by parliament or any other representative institutions. Instead, the mantra of economic development and national security is constantly deployed to silence and intimidate critics who raise uncomfortable points regarding government policy.

The government’s apparent abhorrence for transparent governance is compounded by another unfortunate reality of Pakistani democracy, namely the way in which it remains a political project completely and utterly dominated by a class of wealthy politicians, many of whom apparently view the acquisition of public office as a means through which to pursue their individual and collective interests as members of the country’s economic elite. The entire notion of the ‘electable’ politician is reflective of this fact, demonstrating how wealth and influence are widely seen as prerequisites for those harbouring political aspirations in Pakistan. That these people then act and legislate in their own best interests, particularly in the absence of robust mechanisms through which to hold them accountable, should not be a surprise to anyone.

These two problems – a lack of accountability and elite domination – are not the only ailments afflicting Pakistan’s democracy, but they are arguably the most important precisely because they contribute to a broader sense of alienation and marginalisation that often generates the kind of democratic disconnect that has underpinned the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. Consider precisely what it is that unites these movements and parties across continents and oceans; while considerable attention is rightly paid to the racism and bigotry of these groups, much less is said about their economic platforms. Almost without exception, these movements invoke economic nationalism and massive public spending as a means through which to address the very real economic problems faced by the constituencies towards which they direct their electoral appeals. Right-wing populists across the globe have recognised that the mainstream liberalism of the past three decades – characterised by neo-liberal economic policies enacted and implemented by relatively insular establishment elites – has failed to promote inclusive growth and development, creating a reservoir of popular discontent ripe for exploitation by political entrepreneurs employing the right kind of rhetoric.

As blasphemy is once again in the news, not least of all because of the way in which in which the Prime Minister himself was ludicrously accused of it by a retired Air Marshal on television, it makes sense to reflect on precisely why this issue has so much resonance in Pakistan. While it might be tempting to take the seriousness with which blasphemy is treated in Pakistan as being reflective of the depth of religious feeling and sentiment in the country, it might also be the case that this is an issue that has been successfully used by the religious right, since the Zia years, to mobilise its supporters, defend and expand its political space, and shape the national debate. Much has been said about the abuse of the blasphemy law, and the way in which the credence given to allegations of blasphemy signifies rising levels of intolerance in Pakistan and the spread of an extremely parochial interpretation of Islam. More worrying, however, is the prospect of what would happen if this overtly religious rhetoric, manufactured and nurtured as part of the public discourse for decades, were to be wedded to a more explicitly political movement taking the state to task for its failure to deliver. It is precisely that sort of mix, arising out of the insouciance of a nominally democratic elite, that could pose the greatest challenge to a progressive and inclusive Pakistani future.