In October last year, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in a public address stated that Pakistanis should stop worrying, “ Ghabrain nahin , hausla rakhain (do not worry, have fortitude).” But after five months of waiting for the government to deliver on its numerous promises, perhaps it is now time to really start worrying.
A different mandate
In each of the three recent elections in Pakistan, in 2008, 2013 and last year in July, a different political party won and formed the government. The Pakistan Peoples Party in 2008, following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, had two Prime Ministers in its five-year tenure; but with Asif Zardari as President of Pakistan, this five-year tenure is better known as Mr. Zardari’s government. Similarly, after 2013, the Pakistan Muslim League’s Nawaz Sharif made a remarkable reappearance in Pakistan’s political scene and became Prime Minister for the third time, only to be debarred and removed from office, and subsequently imprisoned, and was replaced by one of his party members as Prime Minister. The 2013 government, even with Mr. Sharif behind bars, was known as his government. The third transition, or ‘experiment’ as it has been called since last year well before the elections took place, was for Pakistan’s military and judiciary, the so-called ‘establishment’, to work together and ensure an electoral victory for the third political party in as many elections, with Imran Khan winning.
The electoral results in 2008 and 2013 were not unexpected. After Benazir Bhutto’s killing, a sympathy wave led to her party winning enough seats to form a coalition government, but with its particularly poor performance in its five-year tenure, Mr. Sharif’s victory was also not unexpected. Despite the incarceration of Mr. Sharif and the multiple cases against him in 2017 and 2018, the general perception was that his party would probably get re-elected, albeit with a smaller majority. Mr. Khan’s victory followed on a multi-month strategy by the establishment to ensure that he would win, with ample evidence suggesting that he was ushered in with much help from behind the scenes. His shell-shocked victory speech a few hours after the elections suggested that even he was taken aback when victory was handed to him.
Five months on
Five months is a long enough time to be able to assess what a new government has done and the direction it intends to follow. Both the Zardari government of 2008 and the Sharif government in 2013 quickly went into taking numerous decisions soon after being elected. In 2008, with support from the Opposition led by Mr. Sharif, Mr. Zardari and his government worked together to jointly address issues concerning the economy, and to remove the then President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, by initiating a process to have him impeached, leading to his resignation. Differences emerged between Mr. Sharif and Mr. Zardari over issues about an amnesty granted to political leaders and about the reinstatement of members of the judiciary dismissed while General Musharraf was President. Nevertheless, the main purpose apparent from the beginning had been served and was clear from the start, to reclaim popular political space from the military, and to reassert the sovereignty of the law. Mr. Sharif, when he was elected in 2013, from the very first moment, started work on addressing Pakistan’s biggest problem at that time, the electricity crisis which was crippling the economy. After taking several decisions within days of assuming power, he started to put the economy on some track, and agreed to an International Monetary Fund programme.
The most noticeable demonstration of Mr. Khan’s government over the last five months has been best reflected in its ineptitude, indecision, bumbling, sanctimoniousness. For the past five months, we have been waiting for some major policy direction, vision, even just a simple decision on what to do next, but nothing so far has emerged. Other than the ‘we will put all the corrupt politicians in jail’ mantra, this government has been lacking in foresight and a sense of purpose. It is not inexperience which is the cause for this. Although Mr. Khan has not held a job for many years — his last paid job was probably as Pakistan’s cricket captain — most of his Ministers and advisers have been in government with one political party or another. In fact, many worked with General Musharraf when he was President. The many claims that Mr. Khan makes about strong leadership seem to be undermined with him in charge of Pakistan’s government.
Perhaps the most urgent and pressing problem facing Pakistan today is that of an economy quickly going into a crisis state, largely on account of inaction and uncertainty created by the Finance Minister. Pakistan’s growth rate in the fiscal year ending in June 2018 was 5.8%, the highest in 13 years. For the current fiscal year the expectations are that it will be closer to 3%. Inflation today is the highest in six years, and interest rates have been driven to double-digit levels with the Pakistani rupee depreciating 34% in 12 months. There is a growing balance of payments crisis, with exports stagnant and imports still rising, along with a fiscal deficit of more than 6% of GDP. The stock market has fallen, as have investor confidence and ratings of the economy. Foreign direct investment has fallen drastically since early 2018. The China Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC), which was touted as Pakistan’s ‘Marshall Plan’, seems to have completely gone off the radar for now, as the Chinese rethink their strategy for Pakistan. Knowing all this, Mr. Khan and his finance and economic team have done little to stabilise Pakistan’s economy, to draw a strategy to address these exacerbating problems. Other than begging for loans from the only three friends Pakistan is left with — Saudi Arabia, China and the UAE — there has been an absence of ideas about what to do. The populist promises of the election manifesto of Mr. Khan, of making Pakistan a model welfare state on the lines of the Prophet’s Medina, of providing millions of jobs and houses to Pakistanis, will all come undone unless the economy is first fixed.
A controlled democracy
The single most prominent feature of Mr. Khan’s five months has been his repeated pronouncements that he and his government are ‘on the same page’ with Pakistan’s military and judiciary. Unlike Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif, both fairly astute and experienced politicians, and not having had any government experience, Mr. Khan probably doesn’t realise the consequences of what this means and how being on the same page with dominating and powerful unelected institutions undermines and stifles the agency of elected governments. Rather than having used the short breathing space following his electoral victory by taking some resolute decisions, his inactions may not only reflect his inability to understand how to run a government but might simply be because he expects others on this ‘same page’ to do his bidding. In many ways, with a media that is strangulated, and politicians of the Opposition being hounded in the name of ‘accountability’, Pakistan may be back to its tried and trusted model of controlled democracy.
S. Akbar Zaidi is a political economist based in Karachi. He teaches at Columbia University in New York, and at the IBA in Karachi