The world does not operate on Pakistan’s calendar. As the economic and political crisis in the country continues to metastasize and deepen, the regional and global realities that shape and inform Pakistan’s choices continue to evolve. The anticipated escalation of the political crisis in Islamabad over the next few weeks, if not months, will make decision-making even more complicated than it usually is.
The most pressing challenges facing the country include the growing food security and agriculture crisis, a long-standing imbalance in Pakistan’s power sector in terms of the energy mix that keeps the nation moving, a temporary but worrying drop in confidence between Islamabad and, ironically, Beijing and Washington DC, and closer to home, the very complex situation in Afghanistan. These four challenges are treated as problems to be managed rather than opportunities to be exploited. It is important to distinguish between short-term fixes that fail to address fundamentals and longer-term maneuvers that serve the interests of the country whose median age is still below 23.
Whenever the election is held, the Pakistani elite has a responsibility to ensure that the republic handles these four issues competently and competently. At a minimum, this means instituting the right short-term solutions and leaving enough strategic space for the longer-term maneuvers needed to truly exploit the opportunities.
Unsurprisingly, as usual, the deepest risk Pakistan faces in this regard is not external, but internal. Whispers and chatter around the notion of an extended “interim” government are gaining momentum, despite such a notion having no constitutional basis or political support. There are now two paths for Pakistan: an election as soon as humanly possible, or an election on schedule in the latter part of 2023. There is no in-between.
Intermediaries in the Pakistani system had their chance in 2018 and again in March 2022. On both occasions, the “management” of organic political processes was mishandled. After three explicit efforts to “manage” Pakistan which, respectively, produced the country’s break-up (thanks Marshal Ayub), Pakistan’s burial of Jinnah (thanks, General Zia), and the era of outright terrorism in the country (thank you, General Musharraf) one would have expected a firm refusal to try to “manage” once again. Serving and retired military leaders must engage in careful reflection on the fruit of repeated explicit and implicit interventions in issues and areas that are outside the domain of the military. The country can hardly afford new experiences of governance.
Talk of an extended guardian is dangerous and, if it comes to fruition, will undermine Pakistan’s progress as a democratic nation. Its ability to function as a cohesive and coherent home for a multitude of sub-national identities and diverse religious and sectarian groups will be compromised. An extended guardian setup is a formula for resetting the clock on institutional maturity and learning the lessons of five decades – and an invitation to forces hostile to Pakistan’s existence to profit from the substantial concern that a group unelected technocrats, however qualified and honest they may be, will produce. This holds true both in the seemingly PTI-dominated new urban post-vote of no-confidence political minefield, and in the so-called traditional peripheries of the country’s discourse – where the main complaint of the neglected and underserved citizen is the lack of sunlight, oxygen and responsibility.
Interims have one role, and only one: to enable the conduct of free, fair and credible elections. When they overstep that role – whether because they have the support of Rawalpindi to do so, or a more roundabout route through the justice system – they end up deoxygenating the space for incoming elected governments to deliver on their promises and their potential. The most recent lesson in this regard was offered by the conduct of Shamshad Akhtar as finance minister in the 2018 caretaker government; his unelected “austerity” and fiscal tightening may have been justified by the monetary and fiscal “generosity” of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s government, but it ended up setting a pattern of failure for Asad Umar as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Finance.
The lesson is clear: all political parties in contention have a huge stake in limiting the agency and decision-making capacity of gatekeepers. It is ironic and disturbing that instead of learning this lesson, the PML-N and PTI have made oil subsidy decisions that almost guarantee MORE, and no less agency for an unelected technocrat to make things he should never have the power to. To do.
As key decision-makers ponder what to do now with the fires that seem to be raging out of control across the political landscape, they should ask themselves three questions.
First, should a country that has grown at almost 6% per year for two consecutive years worry about food security and oil prices to the point of deciding how long a Pakistani leader can or cannot to be prime minister?
Second, should a country that was right on Afghanistan for two decades and successfully maintained its position on Afghanistan for four US presidencies be so vulnerable to the PTI’s fictional narrative of state-sponsored regime change? -United ?
Third, should the Democrats have a better answer to questions about everyday errors of procedural justice and a sustained structural elite commitment to distributive injustice than the PPP and PML-N can offer?
The easy answer to the first question is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But this conflict is the same for all the countries of the planet; not all countries have entered an uncontrollable slide of domestic political instability and macroeconomic indecision. What factors have exacerbated Pakistan’s vulnerability to Russian-Ukrainian dynamics? Price floors on domestic agricultural products can be part of the answer. The misguided political rhetoric deployed by Imran Khan on the international stage could be another. But how much of the answer lies in the unchallenged elite capture of the power sector? What is the cost of continued excessive dependence on oil and gas for Pakistan? How much of Pakistani sovereignty is traded away by an irrational and suicidal public policy in the energy and electricity sector? And who benefits from these bargains?
Similar questions must be asked about the huge gap between evidence of Pakistan’s strategic and tactical autonomy on the one hand, and claims of US-orchestrated regime change on the other. How did Imran Khan manage to ignite and sustain the imagination of educated, sophisticated and urban Pakistanis in all parts of the country on the issue of US-made regime change? This despite mountains of evidence that Pakistan has – consistently, and sometimes to the detriment of its own people’s interests – maintained remarkable strategic autonomy over Afghanistan, India, Iran and even China. He chose the path he felt was best for himself – and he did so largely through an odd symbiosis of political and military alignment.
No amount of pressure has succeeded in forcing Pakistan’s hand on any issue. Yet somehow the Americans are credited with bringing about a much deeper change, and not at the level of the President or the Secretary of State, or the head of the CIA – hence the pressure usually comes, but supposedly from a BPS- 20 equivalent bureaucrats in Foggy Bottom? There is a deeper dynamic at play here – and Pakistan’s political elites need to do more than just counter the allegation. They must examine why a fantastic fictional account of the vote of no confidence has gained as much traction as it has.
Finally, there is the question of the shortcomings of procedural and distributive justice. The PPP, PML-N and PTI all share a similar record of reform. People’s lack of faith in the constitution, or in democracy, or in federalism, and the excitement for dangerous fantasies like extended guardian setups are rooted in a vacuum of credible reform.
If the best that the three traditional parties can offer is cheap showmanship and the same straight line for Rawalpindi that has been in place since 2008, then all Pakistanis should expect, whoever the prime minister is, is the same thing they got since 2008: still the same thing. An extended goalkeeper setup would be the extreme version of such a bore. No Democrat should entertain this idea.