PTI's one year in Punjab

The government's success in implementing its agenda will remain contingent on how it deals with its own contradictions.
Published August 23, 2019

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf-led (PTI) coalition government stepped into power in Punjab in relatively unique circumstances. It replaced a party holding continuous power for the last decade and consequently had the unenviable task of replacing a chief minister who rode on relatively comfortable electoral mandates and exercised near-total control of the provincial administrative machinery.

In contrast, the PTI avoided internal factionalism over potential chief minister candidates by selecting a rank outsider, was forced to rely on the transactional crutch of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) as a coalition partner and held a narrow electoral mandate that was largely made possible by pre-election machinations and the influx of electable politicians from other parties.

Over and above that, a yawning fiscal deficit at the centre meant the the incoming provincial government had little choice but to keep its purse strings tightly drawn.

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As year one of the provincial government draws to a close, its performance in meeting its declared agenda continues to be shaped by these three (oft-conflicting) trends: the political context of its ascension to power in Punjab, the overall macroeconomic conditions of the country and the contradictions between expedient electoral politics and lofty reform-oriented rhetoric that characterise the PTI.

With this context in mind, and given the goals set out in the party’s manifesto, three key (and historically fraught) areas of performance require closer examination: Punjab’s relationship with the centre especially on the issue of fiscal and administrative autonomy, the long-standing issue of intra-provincial development inequities and governance in key social and administrative sectors.

The health of federalism

Given that the military had already voiced concerns over the fiscal imbalance of the country, and as the political composition of the federal and provincial governments became clear, several analysts contended that the 18th Amendment and the National Finance Commission (NFC) award were vulnerable to reversal.

While Constitutional provisions protecting both areas meant that some of the alarm was misplaced, the early rhetoric from the political governments in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the centre on fixing fiscal and administrative imbalances created by devolution lent continued credence to such concerns.

As it unfolded over the past year, the PTI’s performance on these two important issues in Punjab is difficult to adjudicate. During NFC consultations, Punjab’s stated position — as reported in the press — continues to back the spirit of fiscal federalism and devolution as it currently exists.

The fears voiced at the start of the tenure — that the PTI in Punjab would be a Trojan Horse for a bankrupt centre — have been unfounded except on the issue of forced cutbacks in development spending and the maintenance of a Rs148 billion surplus due to the centre’s fiscal deficit approaching eight per cent of the gross domestic product.

Related: Reversing the 18th Amendment?

At the same time though, the influence of the Prime Minister’s Office (and the federal government) on key decision making in the province’s financial and other related policy affairs signals a more informal rollback of the kind of devolution seen over the past decade.

This informal kind is, again, grounded in the particular politics of the party in Punjab, with factional intrigue and its associated spill-overs on administration being contained by the moral authority of the prime minister and a few senior leaders at the centre.

On balance, then, the record on federalism remains split. The NFC remains intact and no clear cut pathway exists to its reversal, at least as things currently stand. At the same time, with a weak chief minister and lots of behind-the-scenes string-pulling by political heavyweights and advisers parachuted in by the centre, it is also clear that the province has failed to fully own the provisions accorded to it by devolution and given up the space it held for much of the last decade.

Consequently, a key area to monitor going forward would be whether this informal centralisation takes on a more formal shape later on in the government’s tenure or whether the provincial government starts to find a voice and trajectory of its own.

Intra-provincial inequities

In the run-up to the general election, the issue of rectifying development (and spending) imbalances across different regions in Punjab was elevated as a key pillar of the PTI’s rhetorical agenda. This gained further centrality after the party absorbed a number of heavyweight legislators from south Punjab, who had formed the Janoobi Punjab Sooba Mahaz.

The party’s leadership doubled down on splitting the province as a development strategy in its manifesto and then in the 100-day plan after winning the election. Yet, progress on this front remains largely non-existent.

At various points in time, fiscal constraints have been cited as a reason for why a new province cannot be set up at this time. The next-best solution offered by the party — the setting up of a new government secretariat in south Punjab — has also not seen any concerted implementation, despite commitments to do so by the start of July 2019.

Over year one, the most prominent change on the issue of intra-provincial imbalances has been in the less-systemic (though important) domain of project-based development. Over the course of the year, Punjab’s Annual Development Plan was modified to incorporate upwards of Rs15 billion of new projects (mostly in road and irrigation infrastructure) located in various districts of southern Punjab.

Read next: Southern sensitivities

In particular, the division of Dera Ghazi Khan, consisting of three districts, one of which is where the chief minister is from, has seen an uptick in such project-based spending. This trend has been replicated in the budget proposed for 2019-20, with upwards of 35% of all development spending allocated for districts in the south.

The shift in where projects are being prioritised does not signify an institutional transformation (which a separate province might enable), as much as it does a political one. It just happens to be the case that the south remains politically important for a party that has struggled to dislodge its main opposition — the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz — from the more urbanised (and wealthier) central districts.

This change in the geographic composition of the social-political coalition that sustains the provincial government will naturally allow some development-related spill-overs to accrue for the historically-ignored districts in the south.

However, the elite-biased nature of political representation from the south and the ad-hoc ways in which project planning and implementation is carried out will continue to limit the extent to which such spill-overs are both sustainable and widespread.

Social sector and administrative reforms

In its efforts to differentiate itself in Punjab, the PTI’s strategy has been to present itself as a party keen on reforming governance structures and focusing on human development (rather than brick-and-mortar works). On this front, its track record has been patchy at best.

As with most other things, the budgetary ordeal means that the party has been unable to introduce any far-reaching social sector interventions that require large fiscal outlays. While some commendable projects, such as the gradual roll-out of a health insurance scheme (Sehat Insaf Card), the construction of homeless shelters and new social protection schemes under the Ehsaas program have been initiated, their expansion remains bogged down by financial handicaps and bureaucratic delays.

Resultantly, the government has resorted to the rather cliched practice of introducing nominal increases in the health and education budget (the latter’s share in the overall budget has actually declined in percentage terms from 18pc to 16.6pc for 2019-20) to showcase its commitment. As has historically been the case, upwards of 90pc of these budgets will continue to be spent on non-development expenses.

The weakest performance so far has been on the law and order front, as the party has struggled to export its much touted policing reform strategy from KP. Intra-bureaucratic wrangling meant that the chairperson of the commission on police reforms, Nasir Durrani, resigned within the first two months of the government.

Following this setback, the government set up another commission in January 2019, under the interior secretary, but that too has not yet produced any meaningful legislative or policy-related outputs.

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Lastly, a potential positive from the first year has been the Punjab Local Government Act 2019. The new local government system introduced a range of sound technical propositions. It abolishes the district tier as a representative arena of local government and, instead, reaffirms the within-district rural-urban divide through Tehsil Councils and urban municipalities. The latter have also been granted wide-ranging control over functions that the provincial government has unfairly been exercising jurisdiction over for the past decade (such as land use and building control, waste management, sanitation, among others).

The Act also creates provisions for the downward transfer of up to 26pc of the province’s gross revenue receipts, which would amount to roughly Rs400 billion based on 2017-18 figures. It attempts to reconfigure the political relationship between citizens, political elites and their administrative entity by introducing direct elections for local government heads in Tehsil Councils and urban municipalities.

The biggest, and most obvious, caveat here is that there has been no progress on the Act since it was passed in early May this year. While the PTI government says it’s trying to work out comprehensive rules of business and procedures for implementation in a tight fiscal environment, rumours persist that given the Act was parachuted in from the Prime Minister's Office, it faces staunch resistance from the party’s own provincial legislators (who fear being disempowered) and its coalition partner, the PML-Q.

In many ways, the Act is emblematic of the PTI’s first year in the Punjab government and the various contradictory pulls that the party’s character and context generate. There is some attempt at innovative reform, but it's poorly managed and largely ad-hoc due to the centre exercising considerable sway.

Similarly, there is little effort to institutionalise policy making through more representative processes because of the fear of internal factionalism, the continued viewing of legislative businesses as unnecessary and the delegitimisation of the opposition.

Going forward, it is reasonable to assume that even if the financial situation improves, the success of the government in implementing its own agenda will still remain contingent on how it manages to deal with its own contradictions.

Illustration by Mushba Said

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