The more things change in Pakistan, the more they remain the same
Like any other country in the world, Pakistan, too, is grappling with several serious challenges. However, none are greater than the fact that the country has been living beyond its means for decades, without realizing that it is no longer possible to do so. A new government came into place recently with the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – only the fourth ever party to be handed power in the country’s 70 years of existence – riding high on several breathtaking promises to introduce new measures and reforms. However, Prime Minister Imran Khan has realized, to his horror, that the more things change in Pakistan the more they appear to remain the same.
Consider this: With access to official data, Khan has recognized the fact that the state makes even less money than he thought it did -- one of which was through taxes -- and spends far more than it should, resulting in a huge dearth of finance to pay for a large cache of expensive infrastructure projects which were initiated by the previous government for city trains and highways. Additionally, the country lacks the resources to afford even six weeks of crucial fuel and food imports or to pay salaries and pensions of thousands of workers from several large public sector enterprises. There’s certainly very little money to finance Khan’s radical reforms.
The result? Instead of advancing his ambitious social and political reforms, and development agenda – which was to be achieved within a 100-day timeline as promised by Khan during his election victory speech -- the prime minister has so far not even outlined his priorities. A sense of drift prevails. The first few months since Khan assumed office, both he and his finance minister have been occupied by desperate visits to Riyadh, Beijing and Abu Dhabi to convince Pakistan's three allies to extend aid packages -- keeping in line with PTI’s pre-election promises to never seek help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and avoid its strict conditionalities which could undermine the party’s promised reforms.
In the run-up to the 100-day mark on November 29, Khan has made so many U-turns on several pre-election promises that he has now been nicknamed as ‘U-Turn Khan’ – a term coined by the opposition, media, and social media users.
To be fair to Prime Minister Khan, he is dealing with a problem that is not of his own making — his predecessors in parliament failed to reach a consensus or devise solutions to resolve and support the country’s severe and perennial economic paralysis.
Surprisingly, he has said that he will continue to make as many U-turns as required, adding that it was a defining factor for good leadership. This desperation is a result of Khan’s presumption that he had what it takes to recover the $200 billion in public finances that had allegedly been siphoned off by functionaries of the previous governments; his hope that non-resident Pakistanis would send billions of dollars to his government to repair the country; and the failure of his administration to acquire an adequate fiscal breathing space through the ‘dozens of billions’ he had hoped to borrow from his allies.
Instead, his own finance minister has realized to his embarrassment that there was never any amount laundered in the first place. Additionally, the more than six million overseas Pakistanis have largely ignored Khan’s personal appeal to send $1,000 apiece and while Saudi Arabia has promised to inject $1 billion in Pakistan’s treasury for a year to inflate the country’s minuscule foreign exchange reserves (the money can’t be used) and based on inadequate help from Abu Dhabi and Beijing, Khan’s government has finally accepted the inevitability of seeking the IMF’s help for a humiliating bailout.
It is pertinent to note that in one of his pre-election speeches, Khan had said that he would rather commit suicide than go to the IMF for help. Now he is seeking Pakistan’s largest-ever loan package from the global financial body – the 13th time in four decades that Pakistan has sought an IMF loan to stave off bankruptcy. Fortunately, thanks to his U-turn philosophy he need not keep his macabre pre-election pledge. Instead, he promises that this would be the last time that the country would have to apply for an IMF loan. How times change.
To be fair to Prime Minister Khan, he is dealing with a problem that is not of his own making. His predecessors in parliament failed to reach a consensus or devise solutions to resolve and support the country’s severe and perennial economic paralysis. For years there have been talks of a ‘Charter of Economy,’ a basic agreement among political parties on a common minimum agenda of economic reforms and development that would support every government in its implementation. And while all opposition parties in parliament continue to support this, Khan is stuck on proving that his predecessors were economic saboteurs. Instead, he needs to mobilize support based on a consensus. Should he consider a U-turn on this, he could find more support than he had bargained for.
– Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1