Pakistan’s political roller coaster

Pakistan’s political roller coaster

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Pakistan’s political roller coaster continues. Every week adds to the volatility that has come to characterize Pakistani politics. The latest act in the political drama was the long-awaited announcement by opposition leader Imran Khan that he would dissolve the two provincial assemblies controlled by his party on December 23. His aim is to force the coalition government into calling early general elections.

But only a day after this announcement, his ally in Punjab, chief minister Pervez Elahi, seemed to throw a spanner in the works by voicing reservations about a dissolution in a television interview. He went further, berating Khan for his increasing criticism of his one-time benefactor, former army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. He recalled what Bajwa had done for PTI to help its rise to power and said it did not behoove Khan to be ungrateful for this. He also claimed that 99 percent of people in the country were opposed to dissolution.

The interview came as a political bombshell and laid bare the gap that had emerged between the two allies about what to do next and raised doubts about whether the Punjab assembly would be dissolved. Consultations between Elahi’s party and Khan’s PTI continue, including on seat adjustment for provincial elections whenever they are held. Whether this will avert a parting of the ways between them remains an open question.

For its part, the PML-led coalition government did not want to leave anything to chance. It moved quickly to try to preempt the assembly from being dissolved. MPs from PML-N and PPP moved a motion of no-confidence against Elahi to prevent him from dissolving the provincial legislature. They also moved a no-trust motion against the speaker. Simultaneously, in a move coordinated with the center, the Punjab governor asked the chief minister to seek a vote of confidence from the Punjab assembly on December 21. The governor claimed Elahi had “lost the confidence of his party president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and members of his own party belonging to the PML-Q.” But the Speaker challenged this and ruled it unconstitutional. The wrangle over the assembly session continues.

Power tussles and political turmoil remain the order of the day, not purposeful public policy to meet economic and security challenges.

Maleeha Lodhi

With the country’s largest province becoming the center of intense political maneuvering, new uncertainties have been injected into an already fraught environment. This power tussle distracts attention from the growing economic and security challenges facing the country. Whether or not the Punjab and KP assemblies are dissolved, political uncertainty will continue to act as the enemy of the country’s ailing economy, faced with the prospect of insolvency.

The economic outlook remains deeply troubled. Delay in release of the next tranche by the IMF, pending completion of the ninth review, has added to the economic uncertainty. Staying on track with the Fund is critical for Pakistan’s ability to secure access to financial resources to meet its heavy external obligations. Around $33 billion is needed in the ongoing fiscal year to fund the current account deficit and make debt repayments. Public debt has risen to a record high with total foreign debt at $127 billion. Foreign exchange reserves have plunged to $6.7 billion, which cover only a month of imports.

With inflation at a record high, exports declining and remittances from overseas workers contracting, the situation is dire. The rupee’s slide continues against the dollar. Concerns about a sovereign default persist despite angry denials by federal ministers who reject such alarmist views as mistaken or politically-motivated. Nevertheless, the economic crisis has compelled the government to impose import and capital controls and announce a number of energy austerity measures in a bid to manage the deteriorating situation. But if political uncertainty persists, this will cloud any prospects of economic recovery. It will keep investors hesitant and undermine investment prospects. The downward trend in stock market activity is one indicator of this. Without a rise in private investment, the country cannot get back to a path of economic growth which alone can drive a sustainable recovery. Complicating the country’s economic challenges is an adverse external environment in which volatility in global energy and commodity markets persists as does a global cost-of-living crisis.

All of this should urge the country’s political leaders to focus their energies on salvaging the economy rather than engage in non-stop political confrontation and power struggles. But Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s repeated calls for a national consensus on a ‘charter of the economy’ have gone nowhere. For now, the government and opposition are locked in a fierce race to determine Punjab’s political future.

This at a time when the security situation also merits undivided attention from political leaders and the country’s security managers. A series of developments in recent weeks portend more trouble ahead. Stepped up violent actions by the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), frequent border clashes with Afghan forces and terrorist attacks in North and South Waziristan and elsewhere in KP mark rising security threats. The most ominous development was in Bannu, where militants seized the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) police compound, took its staff and security personnel hostages, and demanded safe evacuation to Waziristan. The standoff ended with an SSG commando operation in which all the terrorists were killed. The incident nevertheless underlined TTP’s expanding reach in KP. The latest surge in terror attacks follows last month’s announcement by TTP that it was ending its cease-fire with the government due to continuing military operations against it. It then threatened a new wave of retaliatory attacks across the country, which it appears intent to carry out now. While this is happening, the PDM government at the center and Khan’s administration in KP are quarrelling over whose responsibility it is to curb the rising violence.

These challenges need urgent attention. Instead, they seem to be taking a back seat to other priorities of the country’s leaders. Power tussles and political turmoil remain the order of the day, not purposeful public policy to meet economic and security challenges.

- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha

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