PTI’s six months

February 26, 2019


The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan.
The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan.

FIVE years ago, I wrote a piece titled, ‘‘Tuk-tuk’ governance’, comparing the PML-N’s slow pace in its first six months with Mr ‘Tuk-tuk’ Misbah’s slow batting. The same metaphor now applies to the PTI.

Nawaz Sharif is seen by many as corrupt and inept, Imran Khan as honest and accomplished (at least in sports). That they provided similar initial results in power shows how wrong is a focus only on top leaders. They have to work through their cabinets/ parties, and the latter via the bureaucracy, which then must deal with society, to produce progress.

Also, top-leader competence is more critical than honesty as I argued previously. As a social scientist, I was sceptical that Khan’s honesty alone could dilute his own incompetence, and the dishonesty and incompetence of so many in his party, bureaucracy and society to produce major change. Six months have upped my doubts. Six months aren’t an ample guide for five years, many say. But when they confirm initial social science prognosis, they provide a strong guide for the future.

Social science analysis says the outcomes regimes achieve depend on the quality of their strategies and that, in turn, on the quality of their team. A regime must achieve outcomes in five areas. The main outcomes relate to i) people’s needs like health, education, but for those, it must ii) reform institutions to deliver better services, and iii) manage the economy well. It must iv) manage political challenges from allies, the opposition, media, civil society and our two overbearing unelected institutions and v) handle external ties. A regime achieves outcomes in these areas via legislation, policy, project and service delivery functions.

Time is a remedy for inexperience, not incompetence.

No regime can deliver major outcomes in six months. But by then, it must at least unveil a competent team and convincing legislation and policies for most key areas. My early scepticism emerged from the weak PTI team and cabinet (dis)appointments. The team still remains inefficient and rife with internal rifts. No legislation has yet passed as assembly committees are still paralysed. The very few overall policies or measures unfurled for basic needs, institutional reform and economy have been unconvincing — eg, housing policy, austerity and dam donation drives, media policy and mini-budgets. Institutional reform is in disarray with retreats on Punjab police and local government reform and ad hoc interference in bureaucracy.

The PTI’s urgent economic task was finalising the IMF deal. But there is still no clarity on that, causing market uncertainty. Major policy/ measures on taxes, exports, industry etc. are absent. Politically, its ties with allies are uneasy and poor with the opposition, media and civil society. This has created political uncertainty to match the economic uncertainty. Ties with the National Accountability Bureau and the courts are fraying. Luckily, it is still on the same page with Rawalpindi. But it is not the author of that page. Rather, it is a weak understudy.

This leads to the one area where there have been some outcomes: ties with Saudi Arabia and the US. This has temporarily helped avoid default via bailouts. But the real author of our foreign policy pages is well known. So, little credit is due to the PTI here.

It is also unclear if this trend aligns with the public interest (as opposed to ‘national interest’). Under army regimes, we usually got close to the US and Saudi Arabia. Under elected governments, ties soured with the US and improved with China. Ties with the US and Saudi Arabia are security-centric, and with China economic-centric and durable — hence better. So despite the aid on which the economy transiently floated, the security-based ties with the US and Saudi Arabia under Gens Zia and Musharraf caused us harm as we got sucked into regional wars. This uptick in US-Saudi Arabia ties is now recurring, even under an establishment-propped regime. The concern is whether this too will suck us into deadly conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan with the economy again surviving on transient aid.

As with PML-N, my view of PTI’s past and future is negative. Time is a remedy for inexperience, not incompetence. The PML-N didn’t improve much later and so likely won’t the PTI, given the team and its captain’s incompetence. The captain won’t change. Options for improving the team are limited by political debts and weak bench-strength. One can write off major and quick tabdeeli based on a social science analysis of the PTI, bureaucracy and societal traits. The only unknown is whether the PTI will be a bit better or worse than the PML-N. Time will tell. But how much time the PTI has is also hard to tell.

Change in Pakistan will be slow, regardless of who rules. This represents a rebuke to and calls for humility by those who influenced the polls to help the PTI win.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan.

Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2019