WITH the process of government formation well and truly under way, the question on everyone’s lips now is: who will become custodian of the country’s kitty?

Speculations abound, yet it is clear that the PML-N — which is actively lobbying to have its own man in the coveted slot — wants to revive the political capital that was eroded by its 16-month stint at the helm of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government.

Background interviews and discussions with key PML-N leaders, caretaker ministers and sources privy to the cabinet formation by the incoming government yield conflicting views, but there seems to be a consensus on one point: PML-N Supremo Nawaz Sharif will have the final say on who gets the job of finance minister.

The performance of the finance ministry under the caretaker technocrat, Dr Shamshad Akhtar, also has an impact on these discussions.

Dr Shamshad Akhtar enjoys a good rapport with the IMF, but others close to the Sharif family — particularly Ishaq Dar — are also in the field

Although she took a number of unpopular decisions — such as massive hikes in gas rates — and didn’t manage to tame inflation, Dr Akhtar did manage to implement the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) terms and stabilised currency rates.

This poses a dilemma for the incoming regime; should they continue these unpopular moves that may put the economy back on track and allow the country to negotiate a fresh deal with the IMF, or try to rebuild political capital and take populist measures.

According to one senior member of the caretaker cabinet, rebuilding IMF’s confidence is her biggest achievement, a relationship that would come in handy when the country enters a new deal with the Fund in the near future.

New choices

Another technocrat who is being named as a potential candidate is Salman Ahmed, who recently resigned as a senior partner from McKinsey & Co and is available for a position in the new structure, according to an official source. However, it is still unclear if he will be given a leadership role in the ministry or an ancillary one, such as chairman of the Board of Investment.

Former federal minister for revenue Haroon Akhtar Khan, a perennial Sharif ally, is another favourite for the economic team. Mr Akhtar also briefed Nawaz Sharif on economic reforms and their implementation upon the latter’s return from London.

Internally, the party has limited options following the departure of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Miftah Ismail. Mr Abbasi’s departure also leaves a gaping hole in the energy ministry, which is a tough nut to crack. Observers feel that the PML-N supremo is likely to hand it to a technocrat or close confidant.

Caretaker commerce minister Gohar Ejaz is also a popular pick for the commerce portfolio, thanks to a recovery in the country’s exports. Mr Gohar is thought to have deep ties in the power corridors, as well as a good relationship with president-in-waiting, Asif Ali Zardari.

After an Islamabad High Court verdict barred unelected persons from performing executive functions, i.e. leading a ministry, any technocrat will need to be elected as a senator or MNA to hold portfolio.

Dar-onomics

If the signs are to be believed, Ishaq Dar may well return as the country’s finance minister for yet another term, a PML-N leader told Dawn. However, he said that Mr Dar faces substantial resistance from within the party, and the PPP has already expressed its disapproval.

There is also an impression that, this time, Mr Dar is bereft of support from the establishment over his failure to keep the promises he made before returning to Pakistan from self-exile.

But being the wily and influential figure that he is, Mr Dar cannot be sidelined and may well refuse to accept any other position, such as foreign minister. There were also proposals to nominate him as the Senate chairman or deputy prime minister, but these are no longer being considered.

The main issue is his confrontational attitude with the IMF, which has led to a trust deficit between him and the lender in the past. While Dr Akhtar enjoys a better rapport, many believe Nawaz Sharif will not consider her for the job of finance minister due to Mr Dar’s opposition. A similar fate may befall Gohar Ejaz as well.

Other PML-N leaders disagree with Mr Dar’s practice of appointing of loyal individuals as special assistants in the finance division. Instead, they suggest that people be brought in from the private sector, and bureaucrats like Ahad Cheema and Fawad Hassan Fawad are also expected to get positions in the new government’s economic team.

The final variable in the search for a leader at the finance ministry is Nawaz Sharif’s own ‘micromanaging’ of the portfolio. He has reportedly received several briefings from economists, technocrats and senior party leaders, sources said, while FBR officials also gave him a detailed briefing last week.

In a recent address, he expressed the realisation that the economy would be the biggest challenge facing the incoming government, which is why many believe he may act as a “shadow finance minister” and implement reforms similar to those carried out in the 1990s.

In such a situation, Nawaz will want Dar, a close confidant, at the helm of his younger brother’s cabinet, according to a party source. Mr Dar also becomes indispensable because he would be expected to help out Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s fledgling regime in Punjab.

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2024

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