Volume 3, No. 9, September 2021
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government led by Imran Khan has completed one year in office. It is a year filled with tension, acrimony and an incremental shrinking of the space for freedoms of assembly, expression, and the media (mainstream and social). This should not come as a surprise to those who have followed the trajectory of the PTI’s attitudes and stances during its days in opposition. From its founding in 1996 to its transformatory rally at Minar-i-Pakistan in Lahore in 2011, the PTI remained a marginal force. However, after that 2011 successful rally, it was overnight elevated to the position of a serious third force in our politics (the other two being the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, PML-N, and the Pakistan People’s Party, PPP). Despite that, it took two more years until the 2013 general elections in which the PML-N replaced the PPP in power through a rare (for Pakistan) transfer of power through the ballot box. Imran Khan and his party people had been loudly claiming during the election campaign for the 2013 elections that they would win, a boast belied by the constituency profile of the PTI. And so it proved. The PML-N won, the PTI emerged from its sulk at the result by Imran Khan first challenging the results in four constituencies, and after failure to get any mileage in this regard from the Election Commission or the judiciary, escalating his critique to rejecting the election entire, except for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where PTI won. This was the backdrop for the long march and extended sit-in in Islamabad mounted by the PTI and its supporters in 2014. Throughout that sit-in, Imran Khan railed against the PML-N and the PPP as corrupt and constantly appealed to the ‘third umpire’ (the military) to remove the government and somehow install the PTI in power. Not surprisingly, the military, despite evidence that it had been backing the rise of the PTI since 2011, did not play ball at that conjuncture. To Imran Khan’s relief, the spluttering and fading sit-in was wrapped up after the Army Public School, Peshawar massacre of students and teachers by the terrorists of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.
Imran Khan vied for being made Prime Minister (PM) after the 2002 elections held under military dictator General Musharraf’s regime on the basis of the one Mianwali seat gifted to him by the regime. Since that did not play with parliamentary democratic realities or the numbers game in the National Assembly (NA), Imran Khan was turned down and turned against Musharraf as a result. By the 2018 general elections though, the military-backed emerging scenario became clear. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from holding public office for life by the judiciary and is currently imprisoned on various corruption charges. Former President Asif Zardari is also behind bars on similar grounds. The road to Islamabad was thus cleared for Imran Khan by the military with help from the judiciary and the National Accountability Bureau.
Since coming to power, the PTI government has been exposed badly as perhaps the most incompetent government in the history of the country. Apart from inexperience, the government has proved its own worst enemy by its confrontational, contradictory policies. Because of its daily fare of castigation of the opposition leaders as corrupt, the relationship between the treasury and opposition benches in parliament is extremely acrimonious. This has rendered any thought of cooperation between the two a non-starter. Lacking a safe majority in the NA (its five seat majority depends on turncoat allies) and any majority in the Senate, no meaningful legislation has been possible. Parliament presents a scenario of dysfunctionality and bitter verbal duels between the two sides and little else. It is obvious that this legislative impasse hurts the government more.
In the economic field, confusion and contradictory goals have translated into the country tipping over into a recession, inflation reaching a backbreaking high, the dollar rising against the rupee to unprecedented heights, and the lives of citizens being made miserable. The IMF programme the government has entered into in the name of stabilisation will exact more pain from the suffering masses. Tax revenue is being sought by draconian measures that have failed to document and bring into the tax net the massive informal economy in the past and are likely to fail again. One countrywide traders strike is about to be followed by two two-day shutdowns as just announced by the traders organisations in response to the government paying no heed to their demands for a more acceptable mode of tax expansion and reform. Industry, the business community and entrepreneurs are shedding tears of blood at the state the sinking economy has been reduced to. The irony is that the hard approach adopted by the government is unlikely, despite some marginal increase in the tax net, to increase revenue to the unrealistic targets set in agreement with (or imposed by) the IMF.
The civilian government and the military being ‘on the same page’ mantra is a tissue thin disguise for a barely disguised military dictatorship, camouflaged only in name by a showcase democratically elected government (a claim hotly contested by the opposition, but which has not yet been able to translate its rejection of the 2018 general election results into a movement on the ground). Taken as a whole, the situation one year after the PTI assumed office suggests a major crisis, political, economic, and social, is brewing.
The potential outcomes of this crisis could be the following. (1) Fresh fair, free elections. The military does not seem to be in any mood, despite the flounderings of the PTI government, to abandon its creature. Therefore this possibility can be ruled out for the foreseeable future. (2) A technocratic government to take over for 1-2 years. While this has been a favourite option of the establishment over the years, it has not so far proved capable of being implemented in practice because of the constitutional, legal, and political complications. Besides, the follow up of such a dispensation would likely return us eventually to option (1) above and therefore makes little sense. (3) The emergence of a mass upsurge of protest at economic conditions. If spontaneous and widespread, this could lead to violence. If the opposition were able to shake off its internal divisions and rise to lead it, it may be relatively peaceful and eventually create sufficient pressure for contemplating option (1) above. (4) Because of a combination of continuing government incompetence and mass agitation (whether led by the opposition or not), the military could theoretically contemplate a direct takeover, but this seems less attractive in the political climate of the world today. Pakistan’s dependence for economic and financial sustainability on the US-led west may give pause for thought against any such adventurism. If the government falls flat on its face and a mass agitation compounds the crisis, the inevitable way out once again appears to be option (1) above.
This discussion points in the direction of option (1) above being perhaps the only viable course in the current scenario. However, such an electoral exercise has to have safeguards in place to prevent the kind of gerrymandering and manipulation that the 2018 polls are accused of by the opposition, a charge that is familiar to Pakistanis in their history, which has still to produce, at a minimum, a genuine parliamentary democracy.