Dear voter...

Published February 8, 2024
The writer is a business and economy journalist.
The writer is a business and economy journalist.

IF you are going to vote today, take out a couple of minutes to read this first. There is no candidate endorsement here. We all want the same thing, for our country to prosper, our rights to be secure, the future bright for our children.

Dear voter, please understand this election is more important than any since 2007. This is not hyperbole. That year saw Pakistan undertake a very troubled and very difficult transition from military rule to civilian democracy.

The baggage from the era of military rule was heavy — an economy in meltdown following years of being artificially pumped with borrowed dollars, a judiciary scarred from a dictator’s attempt to cull the bench of the Supreme Court, a rising arc of terrorism following the chaotic end of the Lal Masjid episode, relations with the US fraying as the Taliban scored gains on the battlefield, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and so on.

Navigating the politics of transition was near impossible. It involved absorbing the political cost of stabilising the economy, of massively escalating the fight against terrorism and inviting the wrath of the jihadi establishment in the country, with its deep roots, and managing the aftermath of the lawyers’ movement.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. It is just a reminder that things get extremely complicated during periods when the country has to transition from military rule to civilian democracy.

The present moment is perhaps not the same as a transition from military to democratic rule. But it does involve elements of transition very similar to those moments. Consider, for example, that the country has been run by hybrid regimes since 2017. Not only that, each hybrid experiment since that year was short-lived, meaning it was hamstrung by the necessity and focused principally on ensuring its survival above all else.

Faith in our democracy must win over the desire to get even.

Each hybrid experiment from 2017 had its own unique composition. The government led by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in 2017, for example, consisted of a rump leadership picked from the remnants of the ruling party following the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif by the courts. The next government, led by Imran Khan, was a new political party that had never ruled the country before.

After that, we had the so-called PDM government, led by an unlikely and unwieldy coalition of virtually all political parties that came together to either oppose Imran Khan or save the country, depending on your political vantage point. And after the PDM, came the caretaker government that we, the voters, are preparing to send home today.

This unending trail of hybrid governments rotating through power for seven long and noisy years has left deep scars on the economy. These same seven years have seen the largest loss of value of the local currency ever by comparison to any other seven-year period in the country’s history. The dollar nearly tripled in value from the summer of 2017 till the summer of 2023, before finally ceding some ground which it may well reclaim by the summer of 2024.

These years also saw the breakout of the most ferocious inflationary cycle the country has ever seen. Starting from 2021, inflation spiralled relentlessly to reach heights it has never seen before in our history. For a moment, it was almost as if the value of the money we depend on to secure our livelihoods was eroding in real time, right before our eyes.

I am not looking to reopen debate on who was responsible for this, and what the drivers of the inflation and devaluation were. I have written about these matters enough already. For today, it is enough to emphasise only this: these two phenomena were linked.

The parade of one hybrid combination after another passing by us for seven long and noisy years gave us the inflation and devaluation, along with the intensification of import restrictions and other frantic efforts to husband the scarce foreign exchange reserves and the resultant collapse of growth and the rise of unemployment. These are not only linked. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.

This is what we have to transition out of now. It is not quite a military government, but the endless trail of hybrid regimes that must end today. The government that you and I, together, are standing in line to bring into being today will have a heavy agenda and complicated baggage to carry from the era of hybridity.

Once again, it will inherit an economy pregnant with inflationary pressures, which may have eased but still lurk menacingly just below the surface. Once again, it will face a rising arc of terrorism and the political baggage of successive hybrid eras, which today primarily means a heavy menu of scores to be settled.

The incoming government must not have an embattled mandate. It must have clarity on what is required on the economic front — even if this clarity tells it to put aside some of its campaign promises for the foreseeable future. It must not become hostage to its past and sink into an endless game of settling scores. It must learn, and teach others by its example, to respect democratic norms and procedures, and slowly rebuild the house of democracy that is burning with polarisation and hate these days.

It must relearn the Constitution and remain within the confines of the law. The midnight abductions of PTI workers and candidates and others, must end. Enforced disappearances must end. The politics of reconciliation must be allowed to play out. Faith in our democracy must win over the desire to get even.

Please join me, as we stand in the same line together, in wishing for a new beginning for our country. Let’s resolve to find our way forward together. Let our differences not become unbridgeable chasms of hate. Let our democracy heal — itself, and us along with it. This, dear voter, is my prayer for you and I.

The writer is a business and economy journalist.
khurram.husain@gmail.com
X: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2024

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