Year of polycrisis

Published January 2, 2023
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

2022 was a tumultuous year in Pakistan even by the standards of its turbulent political history. It confronted a polycrisis — several crises that converged to reinforce each other and create an overall challenge tougher to deal with than any single crisis. A political crisis, often with constitutional implications raged through the year, the economic crisis aggravated, the worst climate-induced floods in the country’s history tested national resilience and a resurgence of terrorist violence revived threats to Pakistan’s security.

The ouster of prime minister Imran Khan’s government by a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in April set in train a series of events that drove the country into a state of perpetual crisis. Several aspects of the crisis distinguished it from those in the country’s chequered past. Never before was a prime minister removed by a no-trust vote. The crisis came to encompass all the country’s institutions — Supreme Court, parliament, Presidency, Punjab Assembly, ECP as well as the military, despite its claim to stay away from the political fray. Also there were few parallels in the country’s history of disruptions that delayed the transfer of power.

Unwilling to accept the loss of power, Khan launched a series of actions to first circumvent and then respond to the no-confidence move. He crafted the narrative of a foreign conspiracy to explain his ouster, openly accusing the army leadership of being part of this conspiracy. Although he never produced any evidence to back his charge — and later backtracked on this — it found ready believers among his loyal political base. The aim to delegitimise his opponents backfired especially as military spokesmen flatly rejected this narrative as false. As did a meeting of the National Security Committee.

Khan’s exit from power opened a new, uncertain and volatile phase in Pakistan’s politics. Led by PML-N, the 13-party PDM coalition that assumed power, got off to a slow and unsure start as it had to initially overcome impediments in the way of a smooth transition. Cobbling together a coalition cabinet — the largest in the country’s history — also took time and underlined the difficulties of forging agreement among disparate parties. Nevertheless, Khan’s fierce opposition kept this coalition united even if some constituent parties needed high maintenance from Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who was also obliged to constantly consult Mian Nawaz Sharif in London.

Pakistan has to meet multiple challenges in 2023 in a deeply fractured and polarised state.

Confrontational politics remained the overarching reality of 2022. Imran Khan sought through the year to mount pressure on the government to hold immediate general elections. But PDM insisted on continuing in office until parliament completed its full term in August 2023. The country’s largest province and political heartland, Punjab, becoming the arena of nonstop power struggles. PTI and its ally, PML-Q led by Parvez Elahi, was able to seize control of the government after Hamza Sharif’s brief tenure. But the province remained unsettled with governance all but paralysed due to the stand-off between Lahore and Islamabad. At year end, both sides were locked in a fierce fight — PTI to secure dissolution of the provincial assembly and the PDM coalition to avert that by political manoeuvres.

Ceaseless political confrontation signalled the breakdown of politics in 2022. Amid heightening tensions, political disputes were no longer amenable to resolution by political means. Political rivals either resorted to the courts or turned to the army to further their political aims. An opposition-less National Assembly was marginalised and the political system came under increasing stress. State institutions faced growing pressure. The superior courts were expected by both sides to not just adjudicate legal and constitutional issues but also decide political matters. This turned the courts into arbiters of politics, rather than arbiters of law. The army became the target of repeated criticism by Khan and the subject of unprecedented public and media debate. It was variously accused of not intervening or intervening too much.

The economy was the make-or-break issue for the ruling coalition and country in the outgoing year. Deepening polarisation and political turmoil exacerbated the economic challenge with uncertainty casting a long shadow over a worsening public finance crisis. The dire situation urged Sharif to secure resumption of the IMF programme and seek funds from friendly countries to finance the record current account deficit, meet debt repayments and try to stabilise the precarious macroeconomic situation. Soaring inflation emerged as an even bigger political threat than Khan for the government, fuelling widespread public discontent.

The country saw the worst floods in its history which impacted over 33 million people and caused extensive displacement and destruction. The death toll exceeded 1,200, with massive damage to crops, homes and infrastructure. Relief and rehabilitation efforts by the authorities were augmented by financial assistance from overseas but it was clear that recovery would need more time and money. At the end of the year, flood victims in many areas faced food shortages and the risk of disease. The disaster imposed a heavy financial burden on an already struggling economy.

The government’s change of finance ministers five months into its tenure injected more uncertainty into a tenuous economic situation. As foreign exchange reserves depleted, the rupee weakened, exports declined, remittances contracted and debt payments piled up, speculation about a sovereign default began to intensify in the face of heavy external obligations ahead. Government ministers, however, rejected this as alarmist. The situation entered a critical phase when reserves plunged to $5.8 billion. By year end, it was unclear how Pakistan would navigate the economic crisis, especially in view of delay in the release of an IMF tranche in the bailout programme.

Imran Khan’s announcement in December to dissolve the Punjab and KP assemblies added to political and economic uncertainty and served to further darken the outlook for an economy teetering on the brink of insolvency. As if this wasn’t enough, the country witnessed a fresh wave of terrorist violence, with TTP militants striking across KP and beyond, including the capital. Clashes on the Pak-Afghan border and terror attacks on security personnel in Balochistan underlined growing security problems on the western frontier. But this confluence of political, economic and security challenges did little to unite the country’s political leaders. Instead, it left Pakistan having to negotiate multiple crises in 2023 in an unprecedentedly fractured state.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2023

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