In Pakistan, economic woes dash hopes in the PTI government
More than two decades after Imran Khan first entered politics, his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) rode in on a wave of emotional exuberance and finally made it to the corridors of power. Those who supported him had high hopes he would transform their lives for the better. After all, he was the cricket celebrity under whose captaincy Pakistan had won the World Cup in 1992, and he had used his goodwill to collect funds and set up a free, world-class cancer hospital in Lahore. For years, these achievements were cited as conclusive proof of Khan's leadership abilities and his sincerity to the nation.
Now, nearly nine months since his government assumed power, many who cast votes in his favor are questioning the wisdom of that choice. Inflation has hit 9.5% which is the highest it has been in years, growth is projected to slow down to under 4% from 5.8% and the rupee is in free-fall while gas and electricity tariffs have spiked. For all purposes, life for the common Pakistani has become far more difficult.
To be fair, the PTI inherited some serious economic woes in terms of the current account deficit and a balance of payments crisis, but this was nothing new. Every government in Pakistan has had to deal with the economic mismanagement of its predecessors. But where was the clear policy plan going forward? Where was the comprehensive reforms agenda that highlighted what the previous government's economic policies were doing wrong, how they would be changed and how long it would take for new policies to take effect?
Instead, while in the opposition, PTI focused on telling prospective voters that previous rulers were corrupt looters and plunderers who had lived in luxury themselves but ignored the plight of the common person. The rigid dichotomy between good versus evil, between a sincere Khan and these ‘looters’ was the focal point of every campaign speech and it played out well enough when the votes were cast. People chose the sincere leader and hoped things would miraculously fall into place.
Many in PTI, including Finance Minister Asad Umar, 'irresponsibly' promoted the idea that Pakistani elites had siphoned off $200 billion and stashed them away in foreign bank accounts, and that once the PTI government came to power, it would bring that money back home. It was the kind of reductive economic plan that has little or no understanding of economics. Khan claimed that the money looted by the elite would be brought back and spent on the welfare of the people and vociferously opposed "begging the IMF and foreign governments for loans.”
A narrative of discrediting political opponents may work very well in the opposition but will not suffice in government, where performance and delivery overpower rhetoric.
Ayesha Ijaz Khan
Once in government however, a complete U-turn has been taken. The siphoned $200 billion amount was revised to $11 billion. None of the money has been brought back and after borrowing heavily and being supported financially by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and China, there still remains the need for an IMF bailout.
The entire effort of the PTI while in opposition was to discredit past governments and emotionally excite the electorate to a point where PTI was not answerable on any policy issue. Moreover, anyone who asked relevant questions about how exactly the PTI would achieve its noble promises of building 5 million new homes or creating 10 million new jobs during an economic crisis was accused of being unpatriotic or from the corrupt old lot of politicians.
As it turns out, economists are predicting that the current situation could result in another four million people going below the poverty line and an additional one million people could be without jobs this year, according to a report published in the Express Tribune on April 2, 2019, titled "Inflation jumps to a five-year high of 9.41% in March.”
Meanwhile, fresh reports of corruption from within the PTI have started surfacing in the press. A damning report of public money waste through negligence and mismanagement of the Peshawar busway was published in Dawn earlier this month and showcases the incompetence of the PTI government in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which it has now ruled since 2013. Irregularities and allegations of corruption and nepotism against the PTI government have also emerged in the leasing of land for the Malam Jabba tourism resort to be built in Swat, also in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this situation, it is that a narrative of discrediting political opponents may work very well in the opposition but will not suffice in government, where performance and delivery overpower rhetoric. It is the nature of elections that political parties make some promises they cannot keep. But in the case of PTI, it is fair to say that other than taking a hard-line stance against political opponents, no other promise to the people has been kept.
• Ayesha Ijaz Khan is a lawyer who lives in London and tweets @ayeshaijazkhan