IT has been a year one would like to forget; a year when nothing has gone right. A rudderless government found it hard to navigate the choppy waters. It may have survived despite losing much political ground and with an economy in dire straits but matters can get to be extremely tempestuous in the new year. The pivot on which the government has hinged has already weakened. It’s not just about the PTI government’s fate but also the other challenges that lie ahead for the country.
With the dawn of the new year, the PTI government will face the first serious challenge of having a mid-year finance bill, or the mini budget, passed by parliament amid growing dissent in coalition ranks. The unpopular and highly controversial financial measures required under IMF conditionalities will have serious political implications.
It’s coming at a time when the ruling party is facing growing fissures within its own ranks. The shocking upset in the local bodies election in its bastion of KP has brought the discord to the surface. The debacle has also given huge impetus to the opposition that seems to be united on blocking the finance bill.
It will certainly be the government’s biggest test to prove its majority in parliament. If the bill is defeated, it could further expose the government’s vulnerability. Even if it scrapes through in the vote, the economic fallout of the tax measures could fuel public discontent that is already running high given spiralling inflation.
A divided house and the galloping cost of living could further impact PTI’s shrinking political base.
Its woes have increased with reports of a widening gap in its relations with the security establishment. What is described as hybrid rule has already been shaken by worsening governance and the conflict between the civil and military leadership on domestic and foreign policy issues. The relationship between the two may not have reached breaking point yet but the strains are evident. The row over the appointment of the ISI chief has soured relations.
That matter may have been resolved but it has exposed the power imbalance inherent in the system. The question is whether the security establishment will continue to indulge in political management any more to bail out the government. It may leave the government to fight its own political battles. It will certainly be a major test for Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2022.
With the second phase of local bodies elections in KP and the most critical one in Punjab due early next year, the ruling party finds itself in a political whirlpool. While infighting within the PTI may not help it improve its performance in KP, the prospects for the party in the Punjab polls are even grimmer.
It’s evident that the PTI has lost much ground in the country’s biggest and most powerful province due to its lacklustre performance. Yet the faith of the prime minister in his handpicked chief minster has not diminished. The reorganisation of the party is not likely to change the situation. Moreover, rising inflation has added to the party’s growing unpopularity. A rout in the Punjab local bodies’ elections could further shake the confidence of party supporters just 18 months away from the general elections.
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A divided house and the galloping cost of living could further impact the ruling party’s already shrinking political base. The outcome of the local bodies elections both in KP and Punjab would determine the course of politics in the country in the coming year. Continuing political instability and the economic crisis remain the most serious problems for the country that is facing a myriad of internal and external security challenges.
Foreign policy has never been the forte of the Imran Khan government. Populist rhetoric is seen as a substitute for serious diplomacy. The prime minister’s reluctance to visit some of the most important capitals apparently for personal reasons has hugely affected our diplomatic outreach. The tectonic changes in geopolitics with the exit of the American forces from Afghanistan and the return of Taliban rule in the war-battered country have presented the Pakistani government with its most serious foreign policy and security challenges in the coming year.
The looming economic collapse in Afghanistan and the subsequent worsening of the humanitarian crisis there will have a direct a bearing on Pakistan. Most worrying are the security implications for us. TTP sanctuaries across the border in Afghanistan remain a serious security threat to Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban’s reluctance to take action against the outlawed terrorist network after its refusal to lay down arms should be cause for serious concern.
The return of a conservative regime in Afghanistan seems to have emboldened the terrorist group that is operating from its bases across the border. There has been a marked increase in attacks on Pakistani security forces in recent months. The situation is likely to get worse in the coming year with the uncertain situation in Afghanistan. It is, however, violent faith-based extremism that will remain the biggest internal security challenge for the country.
At the fag end of the year, the civil and military leadership have approved a National Security Policy that, according to the government, will cover all aspects of internal and external security including the situation in Afghanistan. The policy document that is yet to be made public is said to have outlined “the challenges and opportunities facing Pakistan in the coming years”. The policy as claimed by the government “endeavours to put economic security at the core of policy priorities”.
There can be no two views on the need for a holistic approach to national security. For sure the country’s security depends on economic security. But the main issue is how to implement this policy direction. The absence of a vision for achieving economic independence and self-sufficiency has made our security extremely vulnerable.
Moreover, as mentioned, it is violent religious extremism that poses the biggest threat to internal security. But the government’s own policy of appeasement has encouraged the spread of extremism. Most importantly, the country needs political stability to ensure our security. It remains to be seen how the government deals with these enormous challenges faced by the country in the coming year.
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.
Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2021