Rule by proxy

THE frequent trips of the prime minister to London for consultation with his elder brother demonstrate where the real power lies. They have reinforced the perception of a head of government with no real authority to take decisions on important national issues. He even needs the approval of the elder Sharif for the appointment of a new army chief.

This rule by proxy has widened the power vacuum in Islamabad. Disarray in the coalition government is apparent.

The powerless prime minister does not seem to have the capacity to deal with the multiple crises confronting the country. The drift is ominous. Rule by remote control has seriously undermined the legitimacy of the present dispensation.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s dash last week to London from Egypt was most shocking. While the country has been in the midst of a serious political and economic crisis, he spent four days consulting the self-exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif on critical policy matters. The main issue under discussion was said to be related to the appointment of the new army chief.

That has led to further politicisation of a sensitive national security matter that should be dealt with purely on the basis of merit.

Some recent statements by PML-N leaders have reinforced suspicions that the party is looking for a favourite. Although Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has now denied that there were consultations on the army chief’s appointment, the prime minister’s extended stay in London and the prolonged deliberations held there give a different impression. Contradictory statements by PML-N leaders have badly damaged the government’s credibility.

A powerless PM does not seem to have the capacity to deal with multiple national crises.

Predictably, the entire episode has given further ammunition to the PTI’s narrative questioning the government’s intent. There is no realisation on any side about the damage that such politicisation of the appointment of the new army chief can do to the institution. Nothing could be worse than an ongoing media discussion on the contenders for such a sensitive post.

Each side is feeding off the controversy. It is the ruling party that needs to be much more cautious. Yet, some PML-N leaders have deliberately highlighted the London meeting to prove their point that the ousted prime minister is still in charge, without realising that they are undermining their own government in the process. The Sharif family’s internal political tussle also seems to be a reason for the elder Sharif to be asserting his role.

This wasn’t the first time the prime minister went to London for consultations with the PML-N supreme leader. Soon after forming government, Shehbaz Sharif, along with some senior PML-N members of the cabinet, flew to London for deliberations. It was a clear signal that it was Nawaz Sharif, and not the prime minister, who would set the political course.

This duality of power has hugely affected the government’s ability to chart a clear policy direction, particularly on the economy. Ishaq Dar, who has Nawaz Sharif’s blessings, openly attacked the steps taken by the then finance minister Miftah Ismail to prevent the country from defaulting — he had taken some hard but necessary decisions.

Curiously, soon after the revival of the IMF bailout package, the finance minister was changed and Dar returned as ‘economic czar’. It was obvious that he was appointed to the most crucial cabinet position at the bidding of Nawaz Sharif. Dar’s return seems to have further eroded Shehbaz Sharif’s control. Predictably, the new finance minister reversed a number of economic and financial measures taken by his predecessor.

Dar promised to fix the falling value of the rupee and bring down inflation. But his magic wand has not worked. Instead, the threat of default is back. Moreover, the change of tack could jeopardise the IMF bailout package. The finance minister’s unsubstantiated claim of billions of dollars of financial support coming from China and Saudi Arabia has raised questions about his credibility.

In fact, backtracking on the IMF agreement may block the expected inflow of assistance from multilateral institutions. Many international agencies have downgraded Pakistan’s credit rating. Yet there is no serious thinking in the government about how to stop the economic slide. With the coming debt repayment obligations, the picture remains bleak.

The fact that no new investment seems to be coming in means that economic growth could go down further. There is also the danger of a downslide in the flow of foreign remittances, which will worsen the current account deficit. What is most alarming is the gas shortage; it is not only affecting industries, particularly the export sector, but is also fuelling public discontent. With all these problems, there is no hope of the government containing inflation. The government decision not to appeal the Shariat Court’s ruling on the abolition of interest in the banking system is bound to open a Pandora’s box.

But Dar’s daily press talks continue to project a rosy picture. These are the wages of remotely controlled policies. The Dar effect is devastating. Yet there is no sign of a hapless administration changing course to prevent the impending crash. More than seven months in power, the PML-N-led government has failed to deliver on any promise. The economic situation is far worse than it was before the change in April this year.

Instead of focusing on matters at home, the prime minister seems to be spending time abroad. With its authority restricted to the capital, the coalition government is unable to prevent the situation from slipping out of its control. It’s in a state of paralysis as the galvanised supporters of former prime minster Imran Khan threaten to march on Islamabad. Its growing unpopularity is making it harder for the centre to stop the PTI onslaught.

In less than one year in power, the PML-N seems to have lost most of its political capital, particularly in Punjab, that used to be its main power base. There is no likelihood of the situation changing in its favour over the next few months. The country needs a new mandate and a more representative government to bring some stability. Neither a hybrid dispensation nor proxy rule can pull the country out of the quagmire.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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