An inflection point?

Published June 5, 2023
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

THE fallout of the May 9 riots on the country’s politics has been both immediate and significant. Coming on the back of opposition leader Imran Khan’s intensifying confrontation with the establishment, the violent protests of that day triggered a sequence of developments that led to a sweeping crackdown on PTI supporters.

The party also began to disintegrate as more and more of its leaders and former lawmakers started to quit — an orchestrated process that is still underway. The defecting members all spoke from the same script — condemning the vandalisation of military installations and disassociating themselves from a party they held responsible for the violence.

The ruling coalition mounted more pressure on Khan with ministers warning he could be tried in a military court for “masterminding” the May 9 riots and his party could even face a ban. A beleaguered Khan, now mired in multiple court cases, vehemently rejected this allegation.

While condemning the mass arrests and coercive actions, which he claimed were forcing the exodus from his party, he nonetheless offered talks to the government in a dramatic reversal of his previous position.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, however, rebuffed the offer and ruled out dialogue with those he dubbed as “anarchists and arsonists who wear the garb of politicians but attack the symbols of state”.

PTI’s disintegration has already begun to reshape the political landscape. While political alignments will likely be fluid until elections are finally called, it raises questions about what will be the electoral state of play down the road. A key question is where will PTI’s sizeable vote bank go?

Efforts are on by Jahangir Khan Tareen to form a new party that is able to attract ‘electables’ who have deserted PTI, and offer a ‘third option’ to voters. A smart politician and dynamic entrepreneur, JKT will, however, need his disqualification to be legally overturned to play a pivotal role. It is, in any case, too early to say how successful he will be in launching a party, and more importantly, whether enticing ex-PTI members to join will mean they would bring PTI voters with them.

The country’s future is clouded by political uncertainty and a runaway economic crisis.

This puts the country’s electoral politics in a state of flux. Will the contest in Punjab — the battleground province that determines the national outcome — be a four-way fight, which ends up denying any party a majority at the centre and producing a hung parliament?

Will PTI voters turn up at the ballot box if they see their party has been dismantled and their leader, with all the legal cases against him, has little or no chance of returning to power? This would have a significant bearing on the overall turnout figure, especially as young voters now constitute a large part of the electorate.

It is unlikely that PTI voters would be persuaded to support the two traditional parties, PML-N and PPP, even though the latter has attracted some defectors from south Punjab. After all, their support for Khan was predicated on rejection of these two old parties.

Can JKT’s new party appeal to them? What also has to be kept in view is that in the past voters punished candidates who switched party loyalties. If the PTI vote divides will that benefit one or other of the traditional parties in our first-past-the-post system?

Uncertainties abound, especially as no election date has yet been announced by the government. When that happens, and it cannot be delayed once parliament’s present term ends on Aug 16, electoral calculations will start determining political alignments and the picture will become clearer about the nature of the electoral contest.

But for now, none of the political parties seem interested in spending any time spelling out their policy programmes or vision for the country’s future. No party has offered any ideas about how to address the country’s many challenges. They remain engaged in a power struggle and efforts to subdue their political opponents rather than evolve policy plans for the future.

If uncertainty has become a defining feature of the country’s politics, what is certain is the precarious state of the economy. The economic slide has accelerated under the PDM government with all economic indicators continuing to worsen.

The country is still teetering on the verge of a sovereign default on its debt despite protestations to the contrary by the government. The bailout deal with the IMF remains elusive.

The prime minister recently spoke to the managing director of the Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, for resumption of the stalled programme. But the IMF has conveyed its inability to conclude a staff-level agreement unless Pakistan is able to arrange financing to fill the gap of $6 billion in its current account in this fiscal year, which ends on June 30. Reserves have plunged to just over $4bn that cover less than a month of imports, despite the curbs placed on them.

The government has sought to manage Pakistan’s worst balance-of-payments crisis by stop-gap measures such as imposing import controls. This has already produced severe economic contraction. The latest officially estimated GDP growth figure for the current fiscal year is 0.3 per cent compared to 6pc in the last fiscal year — but even this dismal number is contested.

The industrial sector contracted by 3pc, with many businesses shutting down, causing job losses and shortage of goods. The monster floods last year adversely impacted the agricultural sector, where growth has slowed down significantly.

Exports too have declined, in large part due to restrictions on imports and resultant shortage of raw materials. Meanwhile, inflation has hit the highest ever level and the rupee has lost record value against the dollar. With an eye on elections, the government now plans what officials call a ‘relief budget’ expected to include fiscally lax, populist measures. This will only compound the economic crisis.

With politics taking priority over the economy, the country is approaching an inflection point. Its future is clouded by continuing political uncertainty and a runaway economic crisis that needs decisive action and structural reforms to resolve. The question is whether Pakistan has the leadership that understands this and is able to prioritise the country’s interests over its own.

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

Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2023

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