WITH the numbers game more or less over, the PTI appears well set to form the next government both at the centre and in Punjab. It was already in the saddle in KP and, most likely, the party will be a part of an emerging ruling coalition in Balochistan. It is indeed a great moment for the PTI and its leader Imran Khan who relentlessly pursued his course to the pinnacle of power. However tainted they might have been, the July 25 elections have cleared the clouds of political uncertainty — though not entirely. Now, it is time to move forward.
Shunning the call for a boycott, the opposition parties have prudently decided to use the forum of parliament to fight their battle. Derailing the system was not an option, however serious the reservations over the fairness of the polls may be.
Surely, allegations of foul play on polling day and the delay in the announcement of the results must be investigated. But there is also a question regarding whether the reported irregularities would have drastically altered the overall outcome. Confrontation over the issue could provide an opportunity for non-elected institutions to intervene. A strong opposition in the house will certainly help strengthen the democratic process. Let there be a new beginning.
Only a strong parliament can help the government regain its democratic space.
Imran Khan’s victory speech has raised hopes for the return of some rationality to his politics. He certainly sounded more circumspect and conciliatory while offering his party’s cooperation in addressing the opposition’s complaints about poll rigging. He has laid down the priorities of the incoming administration, promising greater focus on institution building, human development and the alleviation of poverty. Improvement of relations with Afghanistan and India seem to be at the top on his foreign policy agenda.
This is all good but things are not as simple as they sound. It will require more than populist rhetoric to move forward. The challenges are grave, and difficult for any administration to deal with, perhaps more so for a minority government that is dependent on a coalition of disparate groups and a leader with no prior experience of government. The new administration will be constrained by the worsening state of the economy and civilian institutions being in a state of utter shambles. The crisis of governance is much more serious than it appears to be.
Delivering on their promise of a ‘naya Pakistan’ will be a test for Imran Khan and his team. True, the PTI has ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for a full five-year term, but it is a completely different ball game running the central government and the country’s biggest province. The party had given an ambitious plan for its first 100 days in office, which includes turning around the economy, expanding job opportunities, dealing with the housing problem and carrying out structural reforms.
But does the party have the capacity and expertise to deliver on these promises? Imran Khan says he will gather a team of technocrats to help the government. This may be a good idea, but these experts cannot deliver without an effective administration in place. There are certainly many good people among the newly elected lawmakers to fill the cabinet positions. One can only hope that the new PTI administration has learnt from the mistakes of previous governments that promoted cronyism
Moreover, the existing political polarisation in the country worsened by widespread protests over alleged poll manipulation has made the situation more complex. With not enough numbers in either house of parliament at the centre, it will be extremely difficult for a fledging coalition to introduce any meaningful legislation needed for the implementation of the party’s reform agenda, without the cooperation of the opposition benches. That will require a more pragmatic approach. Is Imran Khan ready for that? A strong opposition could create a serious hurdle for the new government.
Imran Khan’s own attitude towards elected institutions in the past raises questions about his ability to take parliament along. His disdain has been evident in his derogatory remarks about the elected house. He would rarely attend parliamentary sessions. It remains to be seen if he changes his attitude when his party is in power. He must understand that by strengthening parliament he would be strengthening the democratic process and his own government.
The requirement of parliamentary democracy is very different from personalised rule. Will Imran Khan shed his apparent arrogance and adhere to an institutional decision-making process? The question becomes more pertinent given the imbalance of power among various institutions of the state. Only a strong parliament can help the government regain its democratic space. The ugly race to win over independently elected legislators in order to form the government in Punjab has dealt a serious blow to the credibility of the democratic system.
There are some legitimate concerns about the PTI’s controversial position on religious extremism that poses a serious threat to national security and the country’s unity. The use of the blasphemy card against the PML-N during the election campaign reinforced the perception that the PTI was catering to the religious right. This is extremely dangerous for a party that seeks to change Pakistan. For the country to progress and improve its image abroad, it’s imperative to take a clear position on the scourge of religious extremism. Bowing to radical groups out of political expediency is costly business that the country can’t afford.
Like his (civilian) predecessors, Imran Khan will also have to deal with the perennial problem of civil-military relations, though his detractors contend that his rise to power owes to the backing of the security establishment. The issue of the civil-military imbalance of power is inherent in the system given the overarching shadow of the military over the political spectrum.
The political crisis triggered by the judicial action against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif allowed the military further space. But the problem cannot be resolved through confrontation. The imbalance of power can only be resolved through strengthening parliament and other civilian institutions, and good governance. It is certainly not going to happen overnight. Pakistan’s external and internal security situation demands a better balance.
It will be tough going for the new prime minister and one hopes he can deliver on his promises.
Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2018