A state of crisis

THERE is something ominous about the country’s current political scene. While the former prime minister is on the warpath seeking to wreck 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 a state of free fall. A month on, the new government is yet to chart its course. The prospect of a systemic collapse is disconcerting. Where do we go from here?

It has been a remarkable turn of events over the last few weeks with the surge in Imran Khan’s popular base as evident by his massive public rallies. It’s not just his ultranationalist and conspiracy narrative that has found traction with the youth and the urban educated middle classes, but also the return of dynastical family rule, which has strengthened support for him. Ironically, just weeks after his fall from grace, the former prime minster is dominating the political narrative.

Imran Khan is now threatening to storm the capital on the back of the proverbial million-man march. He is not only challenging the new dispensation, a chaotic conglomerate of disparate political groups, but also targeting the military leadership that propped up his former coalition rule before the later decided to withdraw its patronage. He has now taken off the gloves.

His no-holds-barred speech at a public rally in Abbottabad recently left nothing to the imagination. Unsurprisingly, Khan’s remarks have provoked a strong reaction from the military. But the warning that the military must not be dragged into the political fray is not likely to deter the former prime minister. His game plan is clear: to bring the establishment and other state institutions under pressure and to 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 virtual collapse of the political system. With more than 120 PTI members quitting their seats, the National Assembly has been left dysfunctional. In this situation, it is hard for the PML-N-led coalition of almost one dozen political parties to withstand the PTI onslaught. It’s not the unprecedented heatwave but the rising political temperature that must be the cause of worry.

It’s not just about the problems in Islamabad; much worse is the situation in Lahore. It has now been some weeks since the country’s biggest province had a functional administration. 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 hanging in the balance with the prospect of over two dozen PTI defectors being unseated.

In that scenario, the survival of the PML-N chief minister is extremely doubtful. The game of throne in the province is far from over. The Punjab crisis is also casting its shadow over a shaky and directionless coalition administration at the centre. The conflict in PML-N ranks largely reflects the differences within the Sharif family and has worsened the state of paralysis.

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

It’s particularly manifested in the government’s dithering in taking much-needed measures to prevent an economic and financial collapse. The delay has already intensified the slide, raising the spectre of a Sri Lanka-type financial meltdown.

While the stock market has plummeted with the free fall of the rupee against the dollar, the government is still undecided on the steps needed to be taken urgently to stop the rot. There seems to be no one in charge of the economy. Interestingly, the position of Finance Minister Miftah Ismail is being undermined by contradictory statements made by former finance minister Ishaq Dar sitting in London.

While the finance minister is engaged in negotiations with the IMF for the revival of the stalled loan programme amounting to $6 billion, Dar in his interviews on Pakistani TV channels is coming out with a completely different viewpoint. The former finance minister, who is considered very close to Nawaz Sharif, seems to be opposed to all the steps needed to fulfil the Fund’s conditionalities.

Interestingly, the finance minister has signalled a hike in the prices of petroleum products in Pakistan, saying the IMF wanted the removal of fuel subsidies, while promising targeted subsidies for the very poor. According to the government’s own calculation, the subsidies on petroleum products for May and June would cause a loss of almost Rs100bn.

But Dar is opposed to any such measure. His prescriptions are extremely damaging for an economy already in dire straits. With the continuing financial haemorrhaging caused by huge subsidies on petroleum and other commodities, his suggestions are a recipe for disaster. Further delay in the IMF agreement 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. Surely, the deepening political polarisation has made the task of the government more difficult. But delay in action will prove extremely costly for the country.

It is, perhaps, the worst political and structural crisis the country has faced in the last several 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 predicament. In any other situation, elections would have been the best option to defuse the situation. But given the existing political polarisation that may not be conceivable.

For Imran Khan, it is ‘my way or the highway’. His authoritarian streak and contempt for state and democratic institutions have largely been responsible for 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. Any such scenario would be disastrous for the unity and integrity of the country.

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