DESPITE the belated passage of a fuel price rise, a case for holding fresh elections grows stronger. Elections will not decisively solve the various problems in Pakistan at the moment, but they offer the most reasonable way to move a step in that direction.
Holding fresh elections is the stated position of Imran Khan and the PTI. For a whole set of different reasons, it is also the position of some in the new ruling coalition. And, if certain rumours are to be believed, it may now be the position of the military establishment as well.
But the mere fact that a position is held by someone’s preferred politician or government institution is not sufficient reason to accept or push for it. The case for elections is far simpler than what most political actors are currently saying.
The PTI’s original demand for elections came because it saw the vote of no-confidence as a foreign conspiracy: local politicians acting at the behest of US diplomats, facilitated by the military establishment. Regardless of the fact that this allegation remains unverified to date, this was the rationale given by the Speaker and the prime minister in the tumultuous and short-lived dissolution of the National Assembly leading up to the ouster of the government.
If the act of governing is not preferable at this point, then why get into government in the first place?
In recent days, this allegation has been amplified, and made in the backdrop of large-scale public protests by the former ruling party. Yet an allegation of foreign conspiracy cannot be deemed enough for parliamentary rules to be sidestepped, the legislature to be dissolved, and elections to be held. The threshold has to be far higher than that.
The case for elections being made by some from within the PML-N is also based on faulty reasoning. Going by jalsa statements and occasional remarks on television, the reasoning being given is that it’s better to get out of government than to bear the stigma of governing a fledgling and spiralling economy. In one public statement, Maryam Nawaz clearly stated that Nawaz Sharif would prefer leaving government than to place any extra burden on the electorate.
The question one needs to ask is this: if the act of governing is not preferable at this point, then why get into government in the first place? The signs of a downward spiral on the economic front were visible for several months. There was little fiscal restraint and a balance-of-payments crisis seemed imminent, thanks to a mammoth increase in imports. But it is apparent that the decision to take on the reins was done on the back of a narrow political calculation (ie short-term survival), rather than a desire to demonstrate governing competence.
Finally, if rumours are to be believed, sections of the establishment seek an early election as well. While stated reasons remain unclear, one can venture a guess. The backlash from the former hybrid partner/ruling party at being abandoned in favour of the opposition coalition is immense. There is also considerable pressure on social media from supporters of the former ruling party and some previously aligned media personnel.
Moreover, while the pressure may have abated in recent days, it was relentless in the days following the vote of no-confidence. Selective coercion might have helped pause it, but the resentment is now very much present. The scale of this suspicion and resentment — now partly shared by nearly all political parties — may be compelling the high command to opt for a reset. Short of anything more drastic and interventionist, an election is the best face-saver on offer (for them) at the moment.
An allegation of foreign conspiracy, reluctance to govern, and shelter from online derision are not good reasons for an election. The only good reason in the present moment — when inflation is wreaking havoc, the country’s financial situation remains precarious, and yet another painful adjustment looms on the horizon — is a mandate from the electorate, which is urgently required to resuscitate parliament and to govern.
All parties aspiring to be in government know exactly what needs to be done to stabilise the economy. They know this because all of them have done some variation of it in 2009-10, 2013-14, and 2018-2020. It is painful and it exacts the greatest toll on the most vulnerable. And, unfortunately, in the short run there is no clear alternative to it.
Based on the limited amount of polling data available, it is unlikely that an election will yield a clear and decisive majority for any one party. This is why I said earlier that it is not going to produce a government that can conclusively solve all the issues that trigger Pakistan’s boom-and-bust economic cycles. However, even a plurality would achieve some semblance of breathing space that is required to take tough decisions on matters such as further reducing the fuel subsidy and steering the economy in the short run. Additionally, it will make parliament functional again by bringing politics back into the legislature via the ballot box, rather than leaving it out on the streets and police stations, where it currently is.
As always in such situations, there is an alternative being suggested, which is both tiresome and unconstitutional. This involves the drawing-room chatter favourite ‘extended caretaker set-up’, which takes the heat off all the major political players as it guides the country through a deal with the IMF and a prolonged macroeconomic adjustment. There is no provision for any such arrangement in the Constitution and the idea does not deserve to be entertained, especially on grounds of ‘necessity’. In a constitutional state, tough decisions need to be owned and steered through the electorate. An election is the simplest way to achieve that end.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2022