The Pakistani political system in crisis


May 12, 2022

ISLAMABAD – THERE is something disturbing in the current political scene of the country. While the former Prime Minister is on the warpath and seeks to destroy the system, the new incumbents are in a state of paralysis. It’s not just about political instability; most worrying is the economy which is in freefall. A month later, the new government has yet to chart its course. The prospect of systemic collapse is daunting. Where do we go from here?

There has been a remarkable turn of events in recent weeks with the rise of Imran Khan’s grassroots base, as evidenced by his massive public rallies. It was not only his ultra-nationalist and conspiratorial narrative that found traction with the young and educated urban middle classes, but also the return of dynastic family rule, which bolstered his support. Ironically, just weeks after his fall from grace, the former prime minister dominates the political narrative.

Imran Khan is now threatening to storm the capital on the back of the proverbial million march. He not only challenges the new dispensation, a chaotic conglomeration of disparate political groups, but also targets military leaders who backed his former coalition rule before the latter decided to withdraw his patronage. He has now taken off the gloves.

His outspoken speech at a public rally in Abbottabad recently left nothing to the imagination. Unsurprisingly, Khan’s remarks provoked a strong reaction from the military. But the warning that the military should not be drawn into the political fray is unlikely to deter the former prime minister. His game plan is clear: put the establishment and other state institutions under pressure and dictate his terms.

Imran Khan’s task seems to have become much easier with the virtual collapse of the political system.

His task seems to have become much easier with a tottering government and the near collapse of the political system. With more than 120 PTI members leaving their seats, the National Assembly became dysfunctional. In this situation, it is difficult for the PML-N led coalition of nearly a dozen political parties to resist the onslaught of the PTI. It is not the unprecedented heat wave but the rise in political temperature that should be the cause of concern.

It’s not just about the problems in Islamabad; much worse is the situation in Lahore. The largest province in the country has been without a functioning administration for a few weeks now. The new chief minister may have finally been sworn in, but there is no cabinet in place. Meanwhile, the fate of the new chief minister is still up in the air with the prospect of more than two dozen PTI defectors being ousted.

In this scenario, the survival of the chief minister of the PML-N is extremely doubtful. The game of throne in the province is far from over. The Punjab crisis also casts its shadow over a fragile and directionless coalition administration at the center. The conflict within the ranks of PML-N largely reflects differences within the Sharif family and has compounded the paralyzed state.

With the father-son duo at the helm in the center and Punjab, power may have seemingly shifted to the other branch of the Sharif family, but the real authority still lies with the eldest Sharif in London. This polarity seems to be one of the reasons for the disarray.

This is particularly evident in the government’s reluctance to take much-needed action to prevent an economic and financial collapse. The delay has already intensified the fall, raising the specter of a Sri Lanka-style financial meltdown.

As the stock market crashed with the rupee plummeting against the dollar, the government is still undecided on what urgent action to take to stem the rot. It seems that there is no one in charge of the economy. Interestingly, Finance Minister Miftah Ismail’s position is undermined by contradictory statements by former Finance Minister Ishaq Dar sitting in London.

While the Minister of Finance is engaged in negotiations with the IMF for the revival of the blocked loans program amounting to 6 billion dollars, Dar in his interviews on Pakistani television channels expresses a completely different point of view. The former finance minister, considered to be very close to Nawaz Sharif, seems opposed to all the steps necessary to fulfill the Fund’s conditions.

Interestingly, the finance minister pointed to rising oil prices in Pakistan, saying the IMF wanted fuel subsidies removed, while promising targeted subsidies for the poorest. According to the government’s own calculations, the subsidies on petroleum products for May and June would result in a loss of nearly 100 billion rupees.

But Dar is opposed to such a move. Its prescriptions are extremely damaging to an economy already in dire straits. With the continued financial haemorrhage caused by huge oil and other commodity subsidies, his suggestions are a recipe for disaster. A further delay in the agreement with the IMF would cause irreversible damage to the economy.

It would also affect our negotiations with Saudi Arabia and China for financial support. This situation is unsustainable. Certainly, the growing political polarization has made the task of government more difficult. But any delay in action will prove extremely costly for the country.

This is perhaps the worst political and structural crisis the country has faced in recent decades. A major question is what is the way out of the situation. Imran Khan’s destructive approach has made it more difficult to find a political solution to the difficult situation. In any other situation, elections would have been the best option to defuse the situation. But given the existing political polarization, this may not be conceivable.

For Imran Khan, it’s “my way or the highway”. His authoritarian side and his contempt for the state and democratic institutions have largely contributed to pushing the country towards a state of anarchy. But in the absence of a democratic solution, there is always the danger of extra-constitutional intervention. Such a scenario would be disastrous for the unity and integrity of the country.

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