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EDITORIAL: It appears that the caretaker government may not have learnt much from the intense flak it received following its arbitrary decisions over the last couple of months to shut down internet services and restrict social media platforms, acts which disrupted the lives and violated the rights of millions of citizens.

Potentially ignoring the exhortations of the citizenry, rights bodies including the Amnesty International and an interim order by the Sindh High Court that bars the government from blocking internet access until February 21, Interior Minister Gohar Ejaz stated on February 6 that suspension of internet service on polling day (today) cannot be ruled out if the government receives such a request from a province or a district in case of a security threat.

One doesn’t need to be reminded that the previous acts of disrupting internet services that occurred in recent months coincided with the under-fire Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf holding online events. Given the party’s very lively digital presence despite the crackdown it has faced, fears of an internet shutdown today to combat its online footprint may yet come to pass.

Even if the purported reason for a potential shutdown is security-related, the public may still perceive such an act as a violation of its basic rights and as an attempt to further suppress an already beleaguered political party. The government must, therefore, realise that such a move will only serve to dispute an already much-criticised electoral process that in the eyes of many didn’t provide a level playing field to all political players.

Here, one must also take into account the latest report of the International Crisis Group (ICG), in which it states that as opportunities to address the flaws in the electoral process have receded, this could lead to a turmoil on election day and thereafter, which could in turn greatly compromise the credibility of the incoming government in the eyes of many citizens. Restricting internet access today, therefore, could lead to a disputed electoral outcome, damaging the legitimacy of whichever party comes to power, something that would serve to foster further political instability and worsen an already precarious economic situation.

The most important task in front of the newly-elected government will be on the economic front. The extreme political instability we have faced over the last two years has severely exacerbated the economic crisis faced by the country and any further turmoil would spell disaster for millions of Pakistanis. There are too many decisions of great importance that the new government would need to take swiftly if Pakistan is to avoid a financial meltdown.

As the ICG report rightly points out, “A new, longer-term deal with the IMF will be crucial to ensure the continued flow of external assistance to cash-starved Pakistan. But such an agreement will not be enough to keep the economy afloat in the absence of political stability, something that will be elusive without a peaceful, credible transfer of power.”

A flawed electoral process and arbitrary decisions that clamp down on the basic rights of freedom of expression and access to information can prove to be a lethal combination, breeding discontent among the populace, which could greatly hamper the ability of any government whose legitimacy has been compromised to make policy choices on a wide variety of matters, ranging from crucial decisions regarding privatisation of state-owned entities, reforming of the power and gas sectors, combating back-breaking inflation that has taken an inordinate toll on lower-income groups and businesses, to alleviating the country’s precarious debt situation.

The realms of politics and the economy are intricately linked, with political stability significantly impacting the state of the economy and the economic choices the government of the day makes. The caretaker authorities would do well to take this into account and ensure that the polling day passes without it taking any decisions that could adversely impact the rights of millions as well as have far-reaching consequences for the country’s economic future.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

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