IN less than two months’ time, the National Assembly will complete its full term. The PDM coalition will then be obliged to relinquish power and be replaced by caretaker governments that have to be in place to hold general elections. But the road to elections is still clouded in uncertainty. With ministers adopting a purposively vague stance, speculation is rife about whether elections will be held on time.
Some of this has been fuelled by the yet-to-be-completed digital census, which news reports indicate might push the election date beyond October as this would entail delimitation of constituencies. There is also uncertainty about the fate of the economy which remains in the critical ward.
Any effort to play with the election date beyond what is constitutionally stipulated would be disastrous for the country. Fixing the economy can hardly be used as an excuse considering the PDM government’s failure to address the ongoing economic crisis. Band-aid measures have only kicked the can down the road and done little to deal with the structural sources of the crisis.
Failure to revive the IMF bailout programme has underscored the extent of government mismanagement. The prospect of elections urged a reform-averse government to avoid taking necessary remedial measures to meaningfully address the perilous state of public finances.
The budget was a missed opportunity, with political considerations taking precedence over sound economics. The IMF criticised the lack of measures both on the revenue and expenditure side. This seemed to rule out chances of any deal.
Uncertainties are not limited to the economy. They extend to the electoral field and involve the question of who would or would not be allowed to run and whether opposition leader Imran Khan will be disqualified in one of the legal cases against him.
PTI’s fate is also unclear given allegations by senior ministers that the May 9 violence was authorised by the party and its high command. Thus, an election minus Khan and his party cannot be ruled out irrespective of what this might mean for the credibility of the electoral exercise.
The launch of a new party, Istehkam-i-Pakistan, comprising mostly lightweight second-string deserters from PTI may well be designed to pave the way for such an outcome so that voters are offered a choice beyond the two traditional parties and the contest is made to look real. But would that really make for genuine competition? That would be for voters to decide. The latest Gallup-Pakistan survey found that only a quarter of Pakistanis expressed confidence in the fairness of the upcoming elections.
The economy remains in the critical ward while doubts persist if elections will be on time.
Voter turnout would be a key indicator of how free and open the electorate is likely to see the process. While there are many unknowns along the path to elections, what can be said with some certitude is that a low turnout would leave a question mark on the winner’s mandate to govern. Turnout in previous elections has ranged between 51per cent (2018), 53pc (2013), 44pc (2008) and 41pc (2002). The lowest — in 2002 — reflected voters’ response to an election held under military rule and therefore not viewed as free or fair.
If turnout drops considerably below the above, those who secure public office by a minority vote resting on a low turnout will end up with weak representative credentials. This will cast the credibility of their victory in some doubt and undermine their legitimacy.
Securing a feeble mandate in an environment of public cynicism in which the majority of voters may choose not to cast the ballot will neither translate into real authority nor empower a fragile democracy.
Of course, much would also depend on whether the two traditional parties are able to motivate and inspire the electorate by what they offer by way of programme or policy. Their present conduct suggests these parties and their leaderships remain obsessively preoccupied with discrediting Khan in what appears to be a strategy of overkill.
Both are also burdened by incumbency especially in light of the worst economic crisis the country has faced, with inflation fuelling widespread public discontent. Neither has outlined any vision for the future; nor how they would address the country’s many challenges. Their public messaging is muddled, negative and so far, directionless.
Hardly the stuff to excite voters, especially new voters. Twenty million have been added to the electoral rolls in the past five years, since 2018. That’s a significant 16pc of the electorate.
Apart from voter participation, another scenario to be considered is if a truncated PTI is allowed to contest minus Khan. In this case, the electoral battle that takes shape in Punjab could see the vote divide among four major contestants on National Assembly seats (PML-N, PTI, IPP and PPP) although the latter’s support in the province has long waned. This could make it hard for any party to secure an overall majority.
A shaky coalition government with a weak mandate would then be unable or unwilling to take the bold and decisive actions needed to extricate the economy from crisis. The possibility of a political outcome inconsistent with the requirements to fix the economy should be a matter of great concern.
This is all the more so as the economy faces a slew of negative trends, none of which are likely to be reversed in the months ahead. Internal and external financial imbalances remain wide, foreign exchange reserves have dwindled to a precarious level, inflation is at a historic high, domestic and foreign debt have reached unsustainable levels, the rupee has lost record value against the dollar, growth has stagnated, exports are falling, overseas remittances declining and foreign direct investment has plunged to a new low.
Pakistan is caught in a classic external debt trap. It faces external debt payments of around $23 billion in the fiscal year starting July, with reserves of only $4bn at present. The only way out for the country from having to borrow more and more to meet rising debt obligations is to secure debt relief. But that will not happen unless there is a strong reformist government committed to undertaking structural measures as part of a long-term policy plan. Can such a government emerge from the election?
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2023