Two choices before government

Published May 15, 2022
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

PAKISTAN watchers at home and abroad will keep their eyes and ears peeled next week for clear indications of the direction the country will be taking as the PML-N-led coalition government unfurls its future plans and the opposition PTI steps up its all-or-nothing game.

This week, the PML-N came in for considerable stick from commentators as its top leaders, including the prime minister, air-dashed to London for consultations with the party leader. The move made for some terrible optics but all that will fade into oblivion if a coherent strategy is unveiled to take the bull by the horns as a result.

But, I guess, decisions such as critical ones on how to steer the listing economy ship out of the troubled waters the last captain left it in could not have waited the resolution of the long-distance differences between Ishaq Dar and Dr Miftah Ismail over the best way forward.

Read more: PML-N mulls over strategy in London huddle

Former finance minister Dar is the pointman on the economy for the former prime minister and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif. He has been lauded for keeping the rupee stable during his tenure from June 2013 to July 2017. But he still has to answer questions about the cost incurred in the process which, his critics say, was debilitating.

Taking over the reins at such a time was never going to be a bed of roses.

Those unanswered questions and the policy disaster during the PTI government have put the economy on life support, and today, Pakistan has just a few weeks of dollars left for imports; the trade deficit stands at around $39 billion; and two months of the fiscal year remain.

Against this backdrop, the incumbent finance minister has had his preparation work hamstrung by public statements from Mr Dar, who disagrees with his opinion, on how to tackle the challenges. Hopefully, some sanity would have been injected into the process during the face-to-face meetings in London.

When Dr Ismail sits down with IMF representatives in Doha next week, specifically for talks starting on May 18, he should be speaking for both his party and its coalition partners, and have already put in motion some of the decisions needed to take the negotiations forward.

The coalition government has to clear the landmines laid by the outgoing government in its gamble to retain office when it knew well there was every possibility that its allies would desert it after its powerful backers turned ‘apolitical’. Dragging PTI over the finish line and herding all independent legislators in its corner for over three years seemed a thing of the past.

The major landmine is the fuel subsidy that is costing the country around Rs2.5bn a day. It will take Islamabad towards a default if an agreement is not reached with the IMF as even bilateral donors and the usually friendly Gulf creditors have linked their support to an accord with the multilateral agency.

Read more: Miftah says govt willing to curb fuel subsidies

Rising inflation, triggered by a global spike in energy prices owing to the conflict in Ukraine, has already placed an unbearable burden on the poor. The subsidy removal will inflict more pain on the shirtless, making people angry.

With the ousted prime minister making clear he will not settle for anything but fresh elections that he himself could himself have called up to March 8 — when the no-confidence motion was submitted — but did not, as he thought his backers would again prop him up, a head-on collision is brewing.

Not just Imran Khan, but his top aides, such as Fawad Chaudhry and Sheikh Rashid, too, are inc­reasingly raising the spectre of bloodshed and violence if fresh elections are not immediately ordered.

But that is not all. So far over the past five weeks since his constitutional ouster from office, it has become abundantly clear from Imran Khan’s inflammatory rhetoric, his divisive politics, and his general tone that when he calls for fresh elections he does not mean just elections.

In fact, the only election that will be credible and acceptable to him would be the one he wins. One only has to see his attacks on the man who was his choice (the other side concurred) as the chief election commissioner to understand his strategy.

In addition, he is also targeting state institutions such as the judiciary and the military because they won’t tilt completely towards him. He seems to be telling them that he can potentially sink the ship if he is not somehow placed back in command.

This is why the coalition government seemed to be delaying the inevitable. It fears the withdrawal of energy subsidies could be the spark that ignites the unstable powder keg that the former prime minister has skilfully, and callously, placed right in the middle of things.

But taking over the reins of government at such a time was never going to be a bed of roses, given their opponents’ misgovernance and incompetence. If anything, I am surprised Dr Ismail and his team didn’t already have a plan in hand as they had several weeks’ notice that the PTI was on its way out.

There are two ways forward now. The first is to quickly push through the electoral reforms needed to ensure a free, fair and transparent election and call for the dissolution of the National Assembly and leave it to the ECP to deal with the fallout.

The other is to think over the span of the next 16 months and decide what must be done to set the house in order and place the country’s needs and wants above political interests but offer targeted relief to the most vulnerable, the poor, the shirtless. I suspect this option will be exercised and made public next week.

At the same time, the right to peaceful protest, free speech and assembly should be safeguarded. However, anyone taking the law into their own hands and plunging the utterly fragile economy into a deeper crisis needs to face the full might of the law. And every institution should be on the same page on this as there is no other option.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2022



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