Pakistan: the way forward?

Published October 28, 2022
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

MUCH seems to have changed in Pakistan in the last year or so. A lot more people are a lot more concerned about where we are and, more importantly, where we are headed — if we are indeed headed anywhere as a nation and country.

The political situation has changed greatly in the last year or so. The removal of a political government has contributed to the problem but that is not it. It is not clear when we are going to have elections or if we are going to have elections.

More importantly, even if we have elections, it is not clear if that will resolve the problems we are having on the political front. Will the elections be ‘managed’ as previous elections and their outcomes were ‘managed’? Despite claims to the contrary from the establishment, it is hard to believe that they will not. And if they are, and we get a government that, initially at least, is on the ‘same page’ as the establishment, will the page and the book not get lost in two to three years as has happened after almost every election in Pakistan? How will another cycle of the same help resolve the political uncertainty?

But, and this is the real issue, irrespective of whether elections are managed or not, if the underlying political and governance structure remains the same — and there is no hope of a change there, nor is there any movement on this front — the elections, apart from addressing the superficial and surface issues of determining the faces representing the deep state, will do nothing. This, more than anything else, seems to be the issue bothering a lot of people. We do not seem to have a way out of the political problems we are stuck in.

The bottom line with the issues on the economic front does not seem to be different either. Irrespective of which government has been in power or will be in power, the economic situation remains precarious.

Also read: Pakistan’s economy ‘expected to slow down’ amid global downturn

IMF deals, contracting more debt and rescheduling the existing debt can provide breathing space for a year or two, but the fundamentals of the economy remain weak and there does not seem to be a political party who is willing and/or capable of taking on these deeper issues. We have had boom-and-bust cycles for the few decades and the same mentality continues.

The PDM government is hoping to get some time before the elections so that the economy can show some recovery. The PTI wants to force an early election in a bid to ensure a stronger showing. But irrespective of when the elections take place, will the economic situation be any different if one or the other party takes over? The clear answer is no.

We do not seem to have a way out of the political problems we are stuck in.

Our economic problems are much bigger and require very deep structural reforms. None of the political parties seem to have the political capital, the competence or the ability to even think through these reforms far less attempt them. And when the polity is deeply divided and when society is as intolerant and violent as ours has become, no political party wanting to stay in the game of electoral politics will dare to attempt deeper reforms. But short of such reforms, the economic situation is not going to change. The future, from an economic perspective, looks bleak too.

The people are hurting. The inflation of the past year or two has been the proverbial straw that has broken their back. The increase in fuel costs and energy bills was just the tip of the iceberg. The increase in the cost of food items and other essentials has been significant as well. Salaries have, for most people, not kept pace with inflation, and even middle-income groups households are seriously hurting. And the pressure is not abating.

There are no effective safety nets for most citizens in the country. BISP-like programmes give a rudimentary cover to the very poor but all other citizens are very vulnerable. The state does not even provide decent health and education services to citizens.

Add to all this Pakistan’s vulnerability to climate change and the situation seems hopeless. This year’s floods were not a freak event. In the next few years, we can expect similar events to take place.

Their level of ferocity might be even higher. Our infrastructure cannot withstand the pressure. If our agriculture continues to be impacted the way it was this year, Pakistan’s economy would become very, very hard to manage, if at all it can be managed. And food security would be compromised as well.

The current government and the prime minister, even in the wake of this year’s floods, said that the government cannot manage the rehabilitation and reconstruction process on its own. If such events occur in the future, what will we do? How will we survive? Will it matter which government is in power and whether or not the ‘establishment’ or the ‘deep state’ and the government are on the same page?

I have not even talked of the challenge of terrorism and the increasing religious and political intolerance in the country and how that is going to impact our lives in the coming years.

Where do we go from here? This is the real question. And a lot of citizens are asking it. For some, the solution might be the election of one saviour or the other, but for many others, another round of saviours does not seem to provide a way out and does not give any comfort.

Will this situation make the ‘establishment’ understand the writing on the wall if they do not open pathways for deeper reforms? Will the situation create an environment conducive to the rise of a new movement or party that will spearhead change? Both scenarios seem unlikely and this is what makes the situation even more dire and discouraging.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2022

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