HERE we go again. One more time we are witness to a familiar spectacle: a government flying into a political and an economic crisis at the same time. The TLP rioters marching up GT Road, the quiet but meaningful ending of the notification saga and the impending economic crisis (temporarily postponed due to a critical injection of $3.2 billion from Saudi Arabia) are now raising the same question that arises whenever one of these affairs gets going: will the government survive? A storm is landing on the shores of Pakistan, and how far its devastation stretches is the key question of the day.
From Lal Masjid to the long march and the sit-in of Tahirul Qadri that ended in January 2013, from Qadri’s second long march in 2014 in which he provided the street power and Imran Khan provided the speeches till the Faizabad dharna of Khadim Hussain Rizvi till the Azadi march of Fazlur Rehman in October 2019, all these episodes were the outward manifestation of a power struggle at the top.
Most likely it is no different today with the TLP march, although it is too soon to say who is playing what game here. What is patently obvious, however, is that the PTI government’s key lifeline, the most critical prop that enabled it to defeat the no-confidence motion against its Senate chairman in the summer of 2019 as well as win the election to the same slot in 2021, has now been severed. From here on the ruling party is left to its own devices. Recall that Imran Khan won 176 votes to become prime minister on Aug 17, 2018. In his vote of confidence in March 2021, he obtained 178 votes while the opposition boycotted the event. The minimum requirement is 172. By contrast, his immediate predecessor, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who contested the slot in the aftermath of the Panama decision, fetched 221 votes.
The numbers get more precarious in the Senate, and even more so in Punjab. A government whose own majority depends on the support of six coalition partners contributing around 25 seats is in no position to do battle with the opposition and anger the military while presiding over a powerful inflationary spiral at the same time. Yet that is where the PTI stands today. No wonder the question is being asked everywhere: will the government survive?
The notification saga has ended, but so has the ‘same page’.
The lifeline from Saudi Arabia has bought them time, nothing more. In a sense it has brought us back to how the story of this government began back in 2018 and 2019. Then too they faced an inevitable approach to the IMF to shore up the foreign exchange reserves that had dwindled to less than one month’s worth of import cover by the time the government was sworn in. Then too they were unable to stomach the conditions the Fund attached to its bailout when talks began in November 2018. Then too they bought some time by recourse to almost $6bn in support from China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
But eventually they had to sign on the dotted line, like they will have to again this time. All those billions bought them little more than a few months. And the embrace of the inevitable adjustment from July 2019 onwards ate away whatever reservoirs of goodwill they had brought with them to power. The economy ground to a halt and as fortunes withered around the country the sheen came off Khan’s persona.
But back then he had powerful backing, described in the coded euphemism of the time as the ‘same page’. The powerful military stood behind him and so long as that was the case there could be no challenge to his rule from within the system. The vote of no-confidence against the Senate chairman in August 2019 showed this as 14 defectors appeared out of nowhere to kill an initiative that otherwise had the numbers in the run-up to the vote.
Today, that is no longer the case. The notification saga has ended, but so has the ‘same page’. From here on, they’re on their own. “All we have to do is step back” an establishment official was quoted in this paper as saying about the survival of the government. Now that the notification has been signed, the dates announced, the transfers set to take place, we will see how far Imran Khan’s government can walk on its own two feet. The ground ahead is raked with coals and the finish line suddenly seems very far off.
From 2019 onward, Imran Khan lost the street, even if he won every vote necessary for his own survival in the National Assembly. Today, he is losing the street again with a new and relentless inflationary spiral for which his government has no plan whatsoever, other than asking for help from Saudi Arabia. They intend to take the money and use it to stabilise the exchange rate and power ahead with their growth ambitions regardless of the destabilising impact that this growth is having on the country’s macroeconomic framework in the hopes that somehow the economy will burst onto the other side of the coming headwinds to find stable and sustainable shores.
Of course it won’t happen. The deficits that are fuelling the exchange rate depreciation are only the other side of the growth story. The two go hand in hand and powering on down this road with borrowed money brings you to the same place it did back in 2019: the doorstep of the IMF, staring down the barrel of an even more stringent adjustment than the one that is on offer today.
Desperate times breed desperate acts, and there is an unmistakable air of desperation in the government’s actions today. One day the interior minister says the TLP’s demands will be met and they were never banned. The next day the information minister is talking tough. Today, they’re not on the same page with each other, let alone with anyone else. Yet the clock ticks alike for them all.
The writer is a business and economy journalist.
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2021