Amid worrisome macroeconomic trends, the questions on mind of diplomatic/donor community in Islamabad these days are interestingly non-economic. Will 2022 be the year when the much-speculated political change takes place? If fresh elections are called this year, will the PTI-led government be able to renew its mandate? Or will a different political party (read ‘PML-N’) come to power?
While the speculation on those questions is better left to political analysts (who should postulate at their own peril), it is clear that the last thing the economy needs is a fresh round of political instability. Political constraints dictate economic decision-making across the world, and this has been especially the case in Pakistan. Therefore, if the ruling party is unable to take more difficult decisions (the mini-budget was a toughie), or if a new party came in all populist-guns blazing, it will derail macroeconomic stabilization.
Considering the entrenched nature of multiple crises, who wants to come to power anyway? And the scorecard does not look satisfactory on either side of the aisle. Pakistan’s economic challenges, which are chronic in character, continue to feed off the PTI government’s failure to have quality economic management. What makes matters worse is this over-reliance on fanciful, feel-good narratives that externalize crises to imagined causes and sermonize the public to consume less of this and more of that.
While the government and its sticky allies will have their likely-difficult day on the ballot this year or the next, their political opposition (be it an individual party or alliance) cannot be accused of having a compelling economic roadmap either. The opposition as a collective has remained a hobbled bunch for the most part since 2018 elections – attribute it to the myriad court cases that engulf leading opposition politicians, or the coronavirus that canceled their rallies, or internecine strife that thwarted PDM’s plans.
But what to make of the capital that exudes a palpable feeling that something akin to a political earthquake – either from an in-house change or an early parliamentary election call – is in the offing? Perception of an imminent change is being attributed to political pressure mounting on PM Imran Khan from several sides. There is the much-written-about rift with the establishment, then the heavy loss in local-bodies elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and now there are increasingly public rifts within the PTI.
Beware, though, the reports of a sitting government’s political demise have historically been over-hyped in this land. For instance, former President Asif Ali Zardari was written off several times before he eventually completed his term in 2013; ex-PM Nawaz Sharif lasted a whole three years after his political obituaries had first started circulating in mid 2014. As for PM Khan, theories about his ouster continue to compete, despite evidence of this regime continuing to remain in an uneasy equilibrium amid setbacks.
For now, the PTI-led government trudges along, weighed down by economic challenges (e.g. taming inflation, getting IMF loan facility back) as well as political difficulties (e.g. getting on the right side of the establishment, managing internal party differences). Just as the PML-N and the PPP governments before it, the final stretch of the PTI government is turning it into a lame-duck administration. PM Khan may have an ace up his sleeve to defy this political trend – let’s see if he chooses to exercise it in coming months.