Are the PTI-led govt's people, priorities and actions a throwback to the Musharraf era?

Eos examines the past and the present through headlines.
Published April 28, 2019

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf came into power in July 2018 with promises of bringing out a 'Naya' Pakistan.

Increasingly, however, the people it has chosen to elevate to its cabinet, as well as its priorities and actions, seem to hark back to the military dispensation of Gen Pervez Musharraf.

Eos casts an eye at the headlines then and now...

Centralisation of power

Gen Musharraf was all about centralisation of power even as he purported to be about devolving power to the grassroots.

This was inherent in his dispensation: a dictator who came to power on the back of a military coup is not about sharing power.

As Chief of Army Staff as well as the Chief Executive of the country and, subsequently, the president after a manipulated referendum, Gen Musharraf controlled all decision-making in the country.

Even after the political engineering of the 2002 elections which brought in a civilian parliamentary façade for the military government, he reinstituted the Zia-era Article 58-2b in the constitution, allowing the president to dissolve the national and provincial assemblies.

Also read: Debating 18th Amendment

There have been increasing calls in recent times both for a rollback of the 18th Amendment – which devolved more powers to the provinces – and for a presidential form of government.

Ironically, these balloons are being floated during the tenure of an elected government that strenuously denies its critics claims that it has come to power on the back of political engineering by the military.

But rather than being inherent in the form of the dispensation, this attempt to concentrate more power at the federal level has to do with a perceived lack of power.

A major component of dissatisfaction is the lack of resources at the federal level, particularly for the military, stemming from a greater portion of the divisible pool of revenue going to the provinces.

The calls to roll back the 18th Amendment which codified the new National Finance Commission (NFC) Award have mainly to do with this.

An inability to undo the constitutional amendment — because of a lack of parliamentary numbers — has led to the proposal being floated for a presidential system, which could hypothetically bypass such constitutional blockages.

The aim, however, is the same: a desire to concentrate power in Islamabad.

Economy in ill-health

The best thing that could have happened for General Pervez Musharraf is war — not ours but someone else’s. And that’s because war tends to revive an ailing economy, increase production in factories, and provide some employment, too.

Explore: Where the government’s handling of the economy is going wrong

While the Americans were initially apprehensive of Gen Musharraf — former American president Bill Clinton even addressed the Pakistani people on state television to underline the benefits of democracy — General Musharraf was more than a willing partner in George W Bush’s war on terror.

Significant money came in, to the extent that Pakistan did not borrow any money from the IMF for a few years.

That said, the shape and size of the economy remained haphazard. The IMF did come in, bringing with it a demand to privatise state entities and widen the tax net. Installed at the helm on the Pakistani side were men who had worked for international financial institutions before: Shaukat Aziz, Ishrat Hussain and Abdul Hafeez Sheikh.

The latter two have returned to the picture as the economy presents an all too familiar picture once again.

Read: Pakistan downed an Indian jet — but the economy is the real battleground

The pinch of inflation felt by common citizens has been intense. More intense than the last five years, and perhaps, more severe than the time Pakistan was fighting an internal war on terror. Money has simply disappeared from the market.

As former finance minister Asad Umer led delegations to meet IMF officials, it became very clear that even the IMF had run out of options to help Pakistan.

Most of what could have been cut from the development budget had already been cut, much of what could easily be privatised has already been privatised. Most of what that could be saved from public spending was being saved. And whatever money that could be eked out of taxpayers has been eked out.

The incumbent government is not the first to rely on Ishrat Hussain and Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, and it seems it won’t be the last either.

Accountability and the opposition

When he first took over, much like all previous military dictators before him, Gen Musharraf promised a clean start and taking to task all those who had allegedly looted the country.

The first days of Gen Musharraf’s dispensation saw the establishment of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) which was entrusted with arresting and prosecuting white collar criminals in government and with bargaining with them for the return of their loot.

As political exigencies came to the fore, and especially as Gen Musharraf sought legitimacy through creating a political party and parliamentary allies, NAB was accused of using the threat of accountability as a tool for political ends.

Those that played ball were spared NAB’s hand, while those that didn’t felt the full force of its draconian laws.

Much of the same criticism is being levied by the current opposition.

While major opposition figures such as the Sharif brothers and their families as well as former president Asif Ali Zardari and his family face the courts for their alleged crimes, many among the current dispensation also accused of shady financial dealings – including the PM’s own sister and some among his closest circle — seem to be escaping NAB’s attention.

The overwhelming feeling is that the accountability drive, while laudable in theory, is once again being selectively used for political ends.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 28th, 2019