Coalition’s fate in own hands

Published May 29, 2022
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

IN removing part of the unfunded fuel subsidy the PTI gave in February this year as it felt the heat ahead of the March no-confidence move, the coalition government seems to have earned itself a reprieve against the backdrop of news reports that its end could be as close as a week away.

It was not just these media reports: some cabinet members were saying the same. The reason? Two factors were at play. The first: a large chunk of the PML-N, including their leader Nawaz Sharif, were reluctant to be left stranded with the economic baggage of the PTI with just a year and a half in which to clear the mess.

Even more significantly, as Imran Khan’s pressure tactics seemed to be forcing a change in the resolve of the military establishment, and the latter was starting to think aloud in terms of an election sooner than scheduled next year, the PML-N’s view was cemented that it couldn’t roll out painful economic measures and then go to the electorate, with no time at all to placate the masses.

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The extra urgency about the need for a ‘fight or flight’ response was obviously dictated by the plummeting forex reserves, which currently represent under two months of imports with every other access to dollars blocked by the suspension of the IMF programme.

Despite the government signalling that it is in for the long haul, scepticism abounds about its long-term prospects.

And it was clear that IMF was not willing to rethink its firm stance (debunking, as a Dawn colleague says, the ‘US-backed regime change’ theory, as the US calls the shots in the international financial institution) on the withdrawal of the unfunded subsidy at a time global fuel prices are still rising.

The subsidy was opening up a yawning resource gap, as it was costing an estimated Rs2.5 billion a day. It was clear this was an indulgence that could end up in bankruptcy for the country, and the spectre of a default was looming.

It was against this backdrop that exactly two weeks ago today, amid reports of ‘interviews of potential caretakers at the GHQ’, it was said in these columns that there were two options before the government as the sands of time were running out.

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“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 Election Commission of Pakistan 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.”

This week’s cut in the fuel subsidy and the targeted cash subsidy to the poorest sections of society to be able to, at least partially, offset the inflation that will inevitably follow, suggests that the coalition has opted for the second of the two options that were discussed here.

The PML-N leadership says there is consensus among the party high command as well as the rank and file that a decision on announcing the date of a new election can’t be made at gunpoint. That would, in their view, be seen as a sign of capitulation by their supporters and thus not be politically viable.

Imran Khan jettisoned his last ‘march on the capital’, short of its final destination, after calling for supporters to gather in D-Chowk, prompting friends and foes alike to once again conjecture about the possible cause(s).

Expectedly, the PML-N celebrated this change in plan and attributed it to ‘IK’s failure to gather the promised two million supporters and he had no other option, left as he was with a few thousand’, despite what was seen as a favourable Supreme Court decision ordering the removal of all obstacles from the path of the agitating marchers.

But this has not doused speculation among those commentators who were predicting a sudden death of the coalition, as they still maintain that the National Assembly or at least the Punjab Assembly would be dissolved, caretakers inducted and elections held and a new government in place by late October this year.

Some of these analysts say that Imran Khan pulled back from the precipice after being dissuaded by powerful friends on a reassurance that elections will be announced over the next month or two, suggesting to him that he will again get the opportunity to appoint the new army chief in November if he wins, as he has seemingly long coveted doing.

Despite the coalition government now signalling that it is in for the long haul, scepticism abounds about its long-term prospects. It is not just about what Imran Khan will do next. There are other factors too. It isn’t clear whether PPP Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar was speaking for his party or sharing his own concerns when he tweeted: “The theory goes roughly like this: let’s do what the IMF says, give a tough budget & we’ll give relief to the public next year, then we’ll happily head to elections. Sure but how certain [a]r[e] we that [the] boys will let us reach the finish line?”

He is not alone. Many commentators are echoing this sentiment and saying that the government will have the rug pulled from under it by the establishment if it does not voluntarily go for fresh elections in a couple of months, particularly if Imran Khan ups his tempo again.

It is true the political engineers are not historically renowned for visionary decisions, but they must also understand the impact of another disruption so soon on the risk- and uncertainty-averse economy. Ergo, I believe this government holds its fate in its own hands. Its performance will dictate whether it’ll face the guillotine.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2022

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