System imbalance

Published June 29, 2022

SAGGING under the weight of internal weaknesses, the political system once again seems to be wobbling towards disequilibrium.

Monday’s proceedings in the National Assembly saw the government’s key coalition partners reacting angrily to being ‘ignored’ by the ruling PML-N. They accused the party of going back on promises that were made to them before the vote of no-confidence against former prime minister Imran Khan.

Their indignation was taken seriously enough that the prime minister hurriedly invited key leaders to PM House for a dinner the same night. Over dinner, he reportedly attempted to soothe nerves and assuage concerns, while trying to keep his allies from jumping ship before his economic and political stabilisation project is completed.

That is easier said than done. Judging by the way the proceedings in the Lower House played out on Monday, it seems that the goals of the federal cabinet and the smaller parties in the rainbow coalition are not aligned with each other.

The government clearly does not have much space to be granting wishes. It cannot, for instance, do much if an ally starts asking for development funds while the IMF is breathing down its neck. It also cannot do much about ensuring Ali Wazir’s presence in the National Assembly, because it cannot afford to annoy the powerful quarters who do not want to see him there. Likewise, it cannot be expected to take serious action over allegations of rigging and violence during the recent local government polls held in Sindh, which nearly every party other than the PPP has denounced as being neither free nor fair.

Read: Coalition’s fate in own hands

The government will, of course, try to find ways to appease its disgruntled partners, but it is also up to the partners to meet it halfway. In case any ally decides to jump ship because the political costs of staying get too high, it could all be over for the government. As one lawmaker reminded the treasury benches, there are only two votes keeping them there.

The prime minister must also keep an eye on Punjab, where the government is balanced on a knife-edge amidst legal challenges to its legitimacy and a make-or-break by-election due next month. A loss there could be a fatal blow.

Meanwhile, Mr Khan has announced plans for another protest in Islamabad on July 2 — exactly a day after the government’s budget for the next fiscal year goes into effect. He will have sensed the growing public resentment over painful budgetary measures and likely wishes to ride it back into national relevance.

With the prime minister intent on navigating the economy out of the ongoing crisis, the challenge will be to keep one hand on the wheel while he tries to keep his government together. As the challenges mount, it will take much patience and experience to see this summer through.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2022

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