PAKISTAN continues to face imposing internal and external challenges. But the ability to address them is being jeopardised by several factors — lack of national unity, intensely polarised politics, institutional disharmony, and absence of political will to undertake long postponed, fundamental economic reforms.
Sharply polarised politics have become a familiar aspect of the country’s political landscape. With government-opposition tensions showing no sign of abating, a non-consensual democracy is in operation. Unilateral, go-it-alone governance seems to be even more pronounced now. The latest example is the PTI government’s plan via a presidential ordinance to extend the term of the NAB chairman despite the opposition’s vociferous objections. It is also exemplified by the government’s insistence on instituting electronic voting for the next election, without any agreement with opposition parties or the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). This adds up to a deeply divided polity that can hardly generate the consensus needed to address national challenges.
Institutional disharmony has most dramatically and consequentially been evidenced in the posting of the head of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency and appointment of his successor. The prolonged impasse between Prime Minister Imran Khan and the army leadership on such a sensitive matter may have echoes from similar unedifying experiences in the past. But it indicated that the ‘same page’ narrative was wearing thin and that civil-military relations were unlikely to be the same again. The public manner in which the government played this issue only added to the strains in the relationship. This has bred uncertainty at a time when energy needs to be directed to deal with the country’s multiple challenges.
Institutional disharmony and polarised politics are impeding efforts to address the country’s challenges.
The government’s confrontational stance towards the ECP is another example of lack of institutional harmony between the executive and a constitutional body, mandated to act independently. Rather than engage the ECP to address its objections to electronic voting, ministers have been vilifying the Commission and accusing it of partisanship. This underlines the PTI leadership’s proclivity to bulldoze its way in displays of intolerance.
Introduction of the Single National Curriculum also illustrates the government moving on its own rather than first building a wide consensus among stakeholders and eliciting a buy-in for the move. The initiative is widely seen by educationists as a leap backwards rather than a step in the direction of modernising the education sector to bring it into sync with 21st-century requirements.
All this at a time when the country confronts formidable challenges at home and abroad. The biggest challenge is a fragile economy faced with an internal and external cash liquidity crunch, growing resource constraints, spiralling debt, rising inflation, runaway food prices, falling rupee and sluggish growth and investment. Beyond the unresolved problems of a rentier economy rooted in chronic budget and balance-of-payments deficits there are warning signs of danger ahead that can snowball into a crisis.
First and foremost, delay in forging agreement with the IMF is already exacting a toll — depleting foreign exchange reserves, pressure on the rupee and eroding business confidence. If the Fund programme is delayed beyond December certain consequences will flow — significant financial outflow, fall in reserves, inability to service debt and an external financing crisis. The rollover of debt payments to key creditor countries is also predicated on a Fund programme.
Another warning signal is rising debt, both internal and external. Public debt is now 91 per cent of GDP (it was 79pc in 2018). Power sector debt has risen exponentially while the circular debt problem has been compounded with no indication of any meaningful resolution. Inability to deal with power sector arrears risks cuts in power supply in winter when demand for gas rises. A third danger sign and the most politically consequential is rising inflation. This is due to a combination of reasons including supply-side and monetary factors while unbridled subsidy schemes have also contributed to it. Food inflation is even higher which is already generating much public disquiet. Unless the government comes to grips with these clear and present dangers the economy risks being blown off course.
Foreign policy challenges are no less imposing with Afghanistan posing the most proximate challenge. Uncertainty continues over whether the Taliban will be able to govern and meet key expectations of the international community essential to avert an economic collapse. In this fluid environment the government has adopted an ill-thought narrative, acting as a virtual spokesperson for the Taliban. It is one thing to help a neighbour, extend humanitarian assistance and call for international engagement. This makes eminent sense. But it is quite another to offer assurances on the Taliban’s behalf when they have yet to deliver on international obligations. It also does not behove officials to publicly make apocalyptic predictions of what might happen in Afghanistan if the international community doesn’t engage. Our policy should distinguish between Pakistan’s interests and the Taliban’s which are far from identical.
Other external challenges also have to be met. Despite the government’s repeated claims to have conducted an effective foreign policy the record shows otherwise. Key areas and the state of Pakistan’s priority relationships offer little reason for self-congratulation. The government has yet to build diplomatic support on Kashmir, relations with the US remain in a state of disrepair and China’s concerns over tardy implementation of CPEC projects have still to be adequately addressed. Lack of sustained and institutionalised engagement with Saudi Arabia, has meant a lost opportunity — the ambitious Saudi investment plan unveiled two years ago has not been realised.
Daily press releases and non-stop press conferences or tweets do not obscure the fact that diplomatic gains have been elusive. Megaphone diplomacy aimed only at the home audience does nothing for the country. Ministers go on and on about how the government has effectively presented Kashmir’s case to the world. But they fail to show what tangible outcome has been achieved from this. The test of foreign policy is to secure outcomes that advance the country’s interests and not the number of speeches that are delivered.
The country’s domestic and foreign policy challenges need prudent decisions and purposeful actions. What seems to stand in their way is a lack of focus on governance, tensions between key institutions and a deeply polarised polity.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2021