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Consolidation or crash?

Updated December 30, 2018

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

REWIND to the end of last year and the most likely outcome this year was: Imran as prime minister, Nawaz in jail or exile and Zardari in trouble.

The system usually gets what it wants.

And that’s what 2018 has largely been about. Since the system is a predominant but not omnipotent force, some adjustments had to be made.

If the system is still at war with Nawaz and Zardari, it may not have the bandwidth to take on Imran too.

The most obvious has been accommodating for how horribly unprepared Imran was for his dream job. A second has been the state of the economy: there is a world of economic hurt already here and more around the corner.

Neither of those miscalculations is particularly surprising.

The project to instal Imran was rooted in the attempts to oust Nawaz and Zardari. The magnitude of the latter would leave little time to prepare for the former — and to prepare the former.

Then again, not a terribly big adjustment: the early mistakes of Imran can be added to the cost of achieving ouster of the other two. Plus, Imran seems to be learning the ropes.

And learning the ropes isn’t all that difficult if the true aim is to be just good enough compared to all that has come before.

Where 2019 could become interesting is once Imran thinks he’s got a handle on things. At that point it may occur to him that the system needs him more than he needs the system.

A year or so into the job, the investment in Imran could be too significant to pull the plug just as he starts to deliver on whatever promise the system saw in him in the first place.

And if the system is still at war with Nawaz and Zardari, it may not have the bandwidth to take on Imran too. A predominant but not omnipotent system can’t fight everyone at the same time.

It could get interesting when a confident Imran figures that out.

The second adjustment has been the economy and the shuddering halt that is coming. Double-digit interest rate, double-digit inflation and sagging growth — a lot of it was probably locked in a year or more ago.

But the system was looking elsewhere, obsessed with national borrowings and the NFC and funds that can be reclaimed by the centre for distribution to the obvious places.

That mistake was foreordained. The system doesn’t understand economics or how to run an economy. It is rent-seeking and resource extracting.

The obsessive focus on the NFC and 18th Amendment is not because the system can’t see that increasing the revenue pie will help everyone dependent on the pie.

The obsessive focus on the NFC and the 18th Amendment is really a bet that the revenue pie will not be substantially increased, that tax as a percentage of GDP will not touch adequate levels.

Read more: Opposition furious over PM’s plans for ordinances use

Now will come the trouble.

The more the economy sags, the more Imran may crank up the anti-corruption machine. But it’s harder to get the public worked up about a corrupt past if the present is economic blight.

That’s the first factor that could halt consolidation — 2019 being the year in which the system attempts to consolidate the gains it made in 2018.

A second factor is the adjustments that Nawaz and Zardari make in response. If Nawaz has strategy to survive and recover, it is known or apparent to no one.

Asif’s strategy of giving them what they want has bought him time and another stint in Sindh, but it has already been signalled that 2019 will be different.

Talk right now is focused on whether a combined opposition could create trouble. But the actual choice that Nawaz and Zardari, separately or together, will have to make is: create trouble for whom?

Go for Imran or for direct war with the system that installed Imran?

It’s not obvious which path they may choose.

Threatening to destabilise Imran and his government could win Nawaz and Asif a reprieve because what could be worse than grinding economic trouble and simultaneous political instability.

But if you’re Nawaz or Asif, that may not be enough — you don’t want to be outside looking in, you want to be right in the middle of things.

Let Imran have a full five years and he may just get another five.

But the option of direct war with the system that has installed Imran is about as high risk as they come. What happens in the highly likely scenario that you lose?

And if you improbably get close to winning, the system has the option to pull the plug and go for direct rule.

Then again, a year isn’t a long time. When Nawaz first looked like he was going to be put away, it seemed he’d be gone for at least a year and a half or two.

Sitting out 2019 would be in line with the original timeline for Nawaz.

For Zardari, disqualification could be swift — a matter of the court saying so — but actual jail time some way off. If the Nawaz ordeal is a comparison, a conviction could be a year or more away.

They could go with the Shahbaz route for Zardari — pre-emptive detention — but that’s not the kind of thing that you go to war over. At least not immediately.

Imran, Nawaz, Zardari and the system are closing out 2018 in a bit of a cat-and-mouse phase.

Twenty nineteen will inform us if that will bring consolidation or a crash. Never say never in this land of ours.

Happy New Year.

The writer is a member of staff.
cyril.a@gmail.com
Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2018