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The shape of the post-election regime has been more or less settled, with the remaining Presidential election on March 9, 2024 too a foregone conclusion in favour of Asif Ali Zardari.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N’s) Shehbaz Sharif has been elected Prime Minister (PM) by the National Assembly (NA), Maryam Nawaz Sharif the first woman Chief Minister Punjab by its provincial Assembly, Murad Shah of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) retaining the Sindh CM’s slot, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI’s) Ali Amin Gandapur being elevated to the office of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP’s) CM, and recently inducted into the PPP candidate Sarfraz Bugti as CM Balochistan. A perfectly fractured mandate if ever there was one.

Therein of course lies many a problem. The Centre only has its own party’s government in Punjab. It will have to manage tricky Centre-province relations with Sindh, KP and Balochistan. Because the PPP, despite having declared it would not join the federal government, has committed to supporting the latter, this part of the equation may prove the least fractious. However, KP’s CM, well known as a militant member of PTI, may pose problems. Balochistan’s Sarfraz Bugti, despite questions being raised whether the Constitution allows a caretaker federal minister to resign on the eve of general elections and run for office, is clearly the establishment’s choice for controlling the troubled province. Since the present dispensation is widely viewed as having the blessings of the establishment, the likelihood is that Islamabad-Quetta will see a more or less smooth working relationship.

The proceedings of the last few days of the NA to conduct elections for the Speaker, Deputy Speaker and PM indicate the shape of things to come. The PTI, it appears, has decided to join the parliamentary system despite its shrill continuing denunciations of the rigged elections in order to continue its fight from within.

That at least is the conclusion based on its behaviour in these sessions, which can be described as anything but parliamentary. Strictly speaking, the PML-N government led by Shahbaz Sharif will be a minority government critically dependent on the PPP’s votes to get any meaningful legislation through. This delicate pass will obviously face the PTI opposition’s unrelenting efforts to make such passage as difficult as possible for the incumbents. Unless handled with care, this scenario could easily, and in the not too distant future, suffer a meltdown, with the ensuing solutions producing forebodings given the looming shadow of the establishment managing things from behind the curtain.

These considerations assume even more importance given the enormous challenges facing the federal government. First and foremost of these is the state of the economy. As the crisis of the last few years has clearly exposed, industry’s import-intensive character feeds into our balance of payments deficit since industry cannot run smoothly and efficiently if the supply chain from abroad of critical plant and machinery, parts, raw materials (including quality cotton no longer available domestically because of the failure to address this and other agricultural declines), etc., is disrupted (in the recent case through restricting import Letters of Credit).

Industry as at present (and for many years) constituted needs a policy of walking on two legs if it is to become viable, efficient and internationally competitive: investment in import substitution and exports. Agriculture’s neglect reflects the consequences of no land reforms (redistribution from the inefficient large landholdings to the poor peasantry, which would usher in intensive cultivation), concentration on research and development of quality seeds (especially cotton), and revisiting the negative consequences of a wholesale turn to sugarcane cultivation in the interests of the sugar mafia (which has the added consequence of exacerbating waterlogging and salinity). These are not one day goals. But if steps are taken in this direction, it would enable the country to satisfy not just the International Monetary Fund (IMF, and by extension, other multilateral and bilateral lenders and the international markets), but also have a salutary effect in nurturing confidence in our benefactors such as China and the Gulf States. Investment in the two-legged policy in industry and land redistribution and support to agriculture would boost employment and accelerate growth.

Apart from the economy and Centre-provinces’ coordination, the challenge of religious fundamentalist terrorism awaits a comprehensive coordinated civil-military plan to plug the unmet gaps in the National Action Plan and allow sharing of intelligence (if need be, at the highest level) in order to put the missing spokes in the wheel of the anti-terrorist campaign. Of late, the Afghan Taliban government is reported to have admonished its ‘guest’, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), not to conduct terrorist acts inside Pakistan. How serious this admonition is, or whether it is just for show, will be revealed very soon either in the shape of reduced TTP attacks inside Pakistan or…

Last but not least, Balochistan needs the healing touch of sincere negotiations with the nationalist insurgents, not the new CM Sarfraz Bugti’s thinly veiled ‘surrender’ invitation. Nationalist insurgency must be distinguished from terrorism. Political negotiations, offering solutions within the four corners of the Constitution and law that go some or all the way to meeting the long list of long standing grievances of the province, seem to offer the best hope of defusing a lingering sore, promising perhaps in the process, the way forward to meet PM Shehbaz Sharif’s stated preference to resolve the missing persons issue.

Hope still resides in the breast, but the forbidding difficulties and challenges would test the most resilient of regimes, let alone one still striving to have its democratic legitimacy accepted.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

Rashed Rahman

[email protected] , rashed-rahman.blogspot.com

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