Of old and new faces

Published March 13, 2024
The writer is an author and journalist
The writer is an author and journalist

THE scene appeared surreal as Asif Ali Zardari took oath as president just a few days after Shehbaz Sharif returned as the country’s prime minister. The two rivals are now tied in a marriage of convenience. The fragmented outcome of the elections has made it necessary for them to bury the hatchet. The new power-sharing arrangement illustrates the bizarreness of Pakistan’s politics. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

The tentativeness of the new arrangement is palpable, with the PPP opting to sit out of the government while occupying the top constitutional position. The 19-member federal cabinet represented by five allied parties that was sworn in this week constitutes mostly relics of the past, evoking little hope of change.

Notwithstanding the induction of a few technocrats, they are mainly familiar faces in the cabinet, who have been in and out of government over the past three decades. Most of them were also part of the previous PDM administration led by Shehbaz Sharif. What is most significant, however, is the appointment of a new finance minister, who is a reputed international banker. The induction of Muhammad Aurangzeb marks the virtual dethroning of Ishaq Dar as economic czar.

For many, the decision to dump Dar and choose a technocrat as finance minister shows that the prime minister is emerging from the shadow of his older brother Nawaz Sharif. It is certainly a good omen for an economy in dire straits. Yet, the challenges for the new incumbent will be daunting. The country needs major structural reforms to put the economy back on track.

Hard times are ahead for the shaky dispensation.

It seems the economy is on top of the prime minister’s agenda, and rightly so. Shehbaz Sharif, in his first address to the cabinet, prioritised some of the measures his government intends to take to stem the rot. But it may not be that easy given the enormity of the prevailing crisis, which has been worsened by burgeoning domestic and external debt. There is certainly no quick-fix solution.

What happens on the economic front in the next few months will be a make-or-break situation for the tenuous coalition administration. The first job of the new finance minister is not only to secure the release of the last tranche of the IMF’s $3 billion bailout package but also to negotiate a $6bn Extended Fund Facility, which is critical to stabilising the economy.

It will be the first test for a rookie finance minister with a background in commercial banking. It is not just about getting the IMF deal but also bringing down debts and expanding the revenue base. Hard times are ahead for the shaky dispensation.

In a curious development, Dar has been appointed the country’s foreign minister. Nothing could be more bizarre than the decision to give the responsibility of running the country’s foreign policy to a man with an accountancy background — one who also failed as finance minister. In our fast-changing regional geopolitics, the country needs an experienced hand to deal with complex diplomatic challenges.

Certainly, Dar is not the man for the critical post of top diplomat. This is the last thing the new government should be experimenting with. It seems that Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N supremo, does not want to let his most trusted lieutenant go. Being among the senior-most leaders, Dar would be the second-most powerful person in government. As in the past, he would also be the point man for talks with coalition partners.

While most other ministers are PML-N stalwarts with the portfolios they held in the PDM government, the choice of Mohsin Naqvi as interior minister is as much of a surprise as was his appointment as caretaker chief minister of Punjab more than a year ago. It is most intriguing that he is not a member of the PML-N or any other allied party but has been given one of the most powerful cabinet positions.

With rising militant insurgency in parts of the country, and worsening political tensions, the interior ministry has assumed great importance. It reinforces the widespread speculation that his appointment has been made with the blessings of the security establishment. Naqvi’s links with the army leadership were much talked about when he was caretaker chief minister.

He also earned notoriety for the ruthless crackdown on the PTI in Punjab during his caretaker administration. The country’s biggest province was virtually turned into a police state. Perhaps that is the reason for awarding him the top civilian security job. Naqvi’s appointment to the key ministerial position also indicates the establishment’s growing footprint on key government appointments.

His rise from media baron to a key minister in such a short span of time is baffling. Meanwhile, he is likely to remain chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board and stand for a Senate seat. One has to wait and see where he goes from this point.

This is only the first instalment of ministers inducted; more appointments may follow as the prime minister has to oblige all coalition partners to ensure the survival of his government. One can only hope that it is not as large as the previous PDM cabinet that had over 70 ministers, ministers of state and advisers, resulting in a massive burden for the exchequer. Despite the transfer of many departments to the provinces under the 18th Amendment, some of those ministries still exist at the centre, causing a huge drain on public resources.

More than anything else, the country needs political stability to be able to move forward. The question of legitimacy of the newly elected National Assembly will keep haunting the new dispensation. The use of brute force to suppress the opposition may further aggravate an already volatile political situation.

There is no indication yet of the government taking any step to bring down political temperatures. What happened in Punjab last week during the PTI protests is deplorable. Economy and governance are directly linked to political stability but that lesson has been forgotten by those in power.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

X: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2024

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