Old guard’s return

Published May 3, 2022
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

IN a rebuke to Pindi politics, the old guard regained power, three and a half years after it was banished. But so bad had the imposed challenger been that their return is a relief, both to Pindi and Pakistan. It’s a special triumph for the Sharifs or at least Sharif-lite, as father and son conquer Islamabad and Lahore. The establishment will now hope that the ‘good’ PML-N keeps the ‘bad’ PML-N out of its hair.

The PTI let the country regress, not just economically — where even the PPP and PML-N did only a bit better — but more so in the political, social, external and security realms. In the economy, there is some excuse due to Covid-19; in other realms, not even that.

But can both deliver? I use the analytical lens I used for the PTI during its tenure: good national outcomes come from good regime policies which come from a strong team. Given the poor quality of PTI’s cabinet, I had predicted in 2018, even with the tabdeeli craze at its peak, that it would give poor outcomes. So it did.

In comparing the two cabinets on 16 key posts, I rate Shehbaz Sharif’s more competent on nine (prime minister, finance, foreign, planning, energy, water, information, climate and law), similar on industries, interior, education and human rights and worse on health, commerce and BISP. So we have a more capable leader, but one who has delivered more on provincial projects rather than federal policies. This is still better than one who delivered on neither, and instead, delivered moral sermons.

Yet there are crucial gaps in the economic and social sectors. Economy is our big worry. The team has strengths in finance, planning and energy but not in investment, industries and commerce which play critical roles in increasing jobs and exports. The (dis)appointments here, being political appointees, lack technical expertise and vitality. On the social side, climate change and BISP are strong but health, education and human rights aren’t.

The current set-up may do better than the PTI.

Governance encompasses legislation, policy, institutional reform, projects and service delivery. The PPP is good at legislation, PML-N at projects and PTI perhaps at service delivery (health cards, Covid-19 etc). None does well on policy and institutional reform which in some ways are the most crucial.

The new regime must develop a meaningful policy and reform agenda that integrates economic and social concerns to put us on a sustainable and equitable progress path. The full spectrum of skills needed to do so are not available with the PML-N and PPP and they must look beyond their ranks to infuse new blood. The PTI did well in bringing in a few competent persons but did not retain them. Sharif must do better.

But given the current team, my prediction is that it may do much better than PTI in the external, social, security and political realms. Some early signs back this claim. Externally, ties are being repaired with key capitals. Socially, there is an end to retrogressive sermons from the prime minister and there are plans to revisit the Single National Curriculum.

Where security is concerned, major actions against the TTP were taken under the PPP and PML-N earlier, which gives hope now as TTP regroups.

Politically, the set-up has a genuine mandate and won’t need Pindi crutches, unlike the PTI. Both the PPP and PML-N oversaw major consensus legislation on key national issues (18th Amendment and Fata merger) unlike PTI’s partisan-driven unilateral record (EVMs and overseas voting). Some steps to end the crackdown on the media and civil society have emerged.

There are also signs they may pursue sleaze cases against the PTI. But the tarni­shed PML-N and PPP lack the moral weight to do so. Our system can’t deliver fair acco­u­ntability yet. It wou­ld be best to first deve­lop it. They may also pursue Article 6 char­ges for viola­ting the Consti­tu­tion, but that is an overkill. A case under Article 5(2) for disobeying the Constitution may be more apt. A big political challenge is Balo­ch­is­tan though I see few signs of the government pursuing peace against Pindi’s wishes.

The PML-N and PPP did better fiscally than PTI; the PML-N was worst on current account and all did badly on genuine growth. While things may be a bit better overall, my prediction is that we won’t break our vicious cycle of IMF loans or achieve genuine progress. Mortifyingly, since our vicious circle is the circumference of a deep abyss, the continued dance of death may lead us to fall in.

This return of political legitimacy is our last hope to avoid the abyss. The PPP and PML-N are corrupt and inept. Yet so bad is our state of affairs that even they are better than other immediate options: the PTI, technocracy or martial law. If they fail again, which is quite likely, so may Pakistan. This makes it even more urgent for the two to grasp the danger and infuse economic dynamism into their fossilised ranks.

The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

murtazaniaz@yahoo.com

Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2022

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