OUR recent governments have run out of steam to become lame ducks much before term. But PML-N has broken the PTI’s record by doing so within 100 days — oddly, the only way in which it has so far shown the fabled ‘Shehbaz speed’. Bereft of its usual grand themes of civilian sway, big projects, strong rupee and peace with India, its regime cuts a sorry figure.
How did it end up so? The key reason is assuming power after the no-trust vote. The clearly legal move to end PTI rule made political sense too, given the PTI’s iffy mandate and fears it might appoint a favoured army chief before the 2023 polls. But assuming power did not make sense because of the tough economic decisions pending. A brokered dissolution via a no-trust vote threat, with a caretaker regime taking hard economic decisions on fuel prices etc, to allow a quick IMF deal after polls may have averted this big political and economic crisis. But since it was Shehbaz Sharif’s way which made non-neutrals neutral, Nawaz Sharif had to meet his abiding desire to be prime minister. The expected ferocious attack by a ‘cornered tiger’ (Imran Khan and the US conspiracy fabrication) has made things hard. The whole time is spent on unsavoury battles in the streets, assemblies and courts with the PTI to win control. The weak PDM numbers at the centre and Punjab, partially due to the rigged 2018 polls, have made things worse as have divisions within the PML-N and PDM. Finally, iffy judicial decisions, eg on clause 63-A, and global turmoil have hurt.
Yet, even so, there are major pluses vis-à-vis the PTI on two fronts. Externally, key ties ruined by Imran with the West and even China and the Gulf states, have been fixed, giving some pay-offs on the FATF and IMF fronts. Socially, the end of retrogressive sermons by the prime minister and a pause on the controversial school curriculum are pluses. Politically, abductions continue and public protests have been crushed, as under the PTI, but the PTI-type politicised accountability has not started.
The key area is the economy where the sorry sight of the rupee in free fall has created images of economic doom. The government inherited the second worst of our four economic crises since 2000 but aggravated it by its initial indecision on fuel prices kept low by the PTI. Yet, despite its weak majority and short likely tenure, it later took brave decisions on fuel prices which stronger regimes often don’t take. However, a short-term dollar liquidity crunch means the rupee is still unstable. While this problem may end in a few weeks, deeper economic issues remain. The budget took more steps to tax elites than any recent budget, though still suffered from many equity and adequacy flaws. But team capacity issues, like in all regimes, mean it too lacks the vision to upgrade exports and industry to ensure sustainable, equitable growth.
Many analysts still see the incumbent rulers as the lesser evil.
Hundred days is too short a period to write off a government. But political problems make its survival uncertain, especially if it loses Punjab. However, despite its huge weaknesses, many neutral analysts still see it as the lesser evil against our other current options — the PTI, technocracy or Pindi — with the only less worse option being perhaps a PDM regime with a bigger mandate. But early polls may not give that. So even if it loses Punjab, it may still try to complete the parliamentary term and hold polls at an electorally apt time. This is its legal right if it can keep its majority, and it is common practice globally.
In order to survive and ensure this will be good for it and Pakistan, it must up its game hugely to deal with the PTI’s venomous political challenge more aggressively via media and social media. Also it must deal with economic issues proactively and develop a strong federal-level legislation and policy narrative for our structural problems to distinguish itself from the PTI’s opportunistic politics full of vacuous narrative sans governance ideas. This covers our perennial twin deficits issues via tax, state enterprises, power sector and other reforms; upgrading exports, industry and agriculture; and legislation on electoral reforms, devolution, civilian sway and judicial issues. For this, it must beef up its team. While it is strong in finance, planning and power, it needs new quality talent for commerce, industry, investment, state restructuring, education, human rights and health.
Pindi, largely to blame for today’s mess, may still intervene for early polls. The PDM may refuse this. If the establishment invokes a no-trust vote, it might bring PTI back in the assembly. But that would lead to the PDM reclaiming its original anti-Pindi and victim status from Imran and paint him as pro-establishment. In such a scenario, the PDM might make a comeback.
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.
Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2022