MANY abhor both, yet choose the PTI or PDM via the debatable ‘lesser evil’ analysis. I avoid such logic and prefer new leftist parties. But as many use it, I offer a lens for such analysis here. Some say that analysts must be neutral. The fact is that they must only be objective. If the objective review shows one side to be better, they must tell the public. I focus on federal governance as data for the provinces is scarce and their contexts are varied unlike the same unit for federal analyses.
The first axis is seeing if each won power fairly. The reports of official monitors like the European Union show no rigging for the PPP in 2008 or the PML-N in 2013 but much for the PTI, allegedly aided by the establishment, in 2018. Former prime minister Imran Khan recently indicated that the agencies kept his assembly on edge. Many rightly say all this was true for the PPP and PML-N too in the 1990s. But if they won in this way then they now win fairly; this is political progress. The PTI is today where they were decades ago. Its win would show regression.
The next axis is work on key governance jobs (legislation, policy, projects, services and institutional reform) and realms (economic, political, social and external). The PTI passed more laws but many were doubtful or bulldozed like the overseas voting one. The best federal laws since 2000 are devolution, the Fata merger and the 2017 electoral reforms laws passed consensually under the PPP or PML-N. Arguably the PTI’s best law — the KP local bodies one — isn’t a federal one.
Policy-wise, the PML-N started the potentially game-changing CPEC but weak delivery led to a crisis. The PTI chose the construction sector, with weak delivery too. On 20 key GDP, inflation, fiscal, debt and external balance variables, the PML-N did best on 13, the PPP on seven and the PTI on none (but is a close second on some) during their recent eras until April 2022 (the present PDM era is too short and hit by too many crises to be seen properly). But the PPP and PML-N too do badly against even India, let alone the Asian Tigers.
The PTI passed more laws but many were doubtful or bulldozed.
Data for other policy realms is qualitative yet objective. The PTI harmed ties with not only the West but also China and the Saudis. So despite meeting the FATF terms long ago, it didn’t get the final strategic nod; but the PDM did so by fixing foreign ties. Pursuing Russian ties at the West’s expense was unwise. Ironically, the Kremlin’s press release for the Khan-Putin Moscow meeting is terse; the one for a Sharif-Putin side huddle in the SCO summit shows wider talks.
Politically, assaults on the opposition, media and activists went up under the PTI. Smooth power transfers are critical for weak democracies. The PTI impeded them four times: via the 2014 false rigging cries and dharna, the 2018 alleged rigging, the foiling of the 2022 no-trust vote, and lately with its rallies to try and topple the government. The PPP and PML-N oversaw our only smooth power transfer between two fairly elected regimes. Socially, the PTI leader has come across as more extreme in outlook with an affinity for the Taliban, faith politics, rightist gender views and syllabi, some of which the PDM is trying to reverse.
All three avoided institutional reform. The main federal projects since 2008 are the CPEC ones started by the PML-N and the metro bus with the PTI’s KP project having the most issues. The PTI relaunched more big dam projects than the PPP or PML-N. The PPP’s BISP is the biggest federal services initiative to which PTI added the smaller Ehsaas ones. Key PTI works like the ‘billion-tree tsunami’ and health cards are more provincial. Thus the PTI’s forte is provincial and/or project and services work, and not federal legislation, policy or reform, which give the most strategic change.
Many see corruption as the only issue based on controversial social media stuff. This cannot replace proper analysis of the axis above, whose outcomes mostly occur publicly and are tracked by expert entities. But sleaze is covert and so must be measured indirectly. It mainly occurs in project and services. There is no proof the PTI did better or cheaper by cutting sleaze. Sleaze convictions are few overall and now being reversed for the PDM and increasing for the PTI. Media stories abound about all. But the PTI does worse on the Transparency Corruption Perception Index. Overall, sleaze stories are overdone.
The PDM is dynastic, corrupt and inept. But a regional view shows such parties are the best that Saarc can currently produce given structural issues that are settled slowly. Comparatively newer parties like the PTI, BJP, TLP and the MQM often have these traits too but bigotry, violence and extremism are also features that define them and they end up ranking poorer than even South Asia’s low norms. So, the PTI fails on not only its claims but even the ‘lesser evil’ logic.
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from UC Berkeley.
Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2022