Breaking the polarising gridlock | By Riaz Missen


Breaking the polarising gridlock

Back in the 2000s, it was believed in the capitals of Washington and Europe that if Pakistan’s parliament becomes supreme, the judiciary independent and the provinces autonomous, then the country’s politics will move on the path of stability — a prerequisite to its economic uplift.

To implement this plan, the rival parties of the 1990s, the People’s Party and the Muslim League-N were made to sit across the negotiating table in London and sign Charter of Democracy in 2006.

Once political reconciliation was made, the self-exiled leadership returned back to the country after given amnesty from their crimes through NRO.

Things went well for ten long years as the parties took turns in the corridors of power eliminating the role of opposition altogether.

This political brotherhood, getting into effect after the constitutional reforms in 2010, however, had a huge price for the economic well-being of the state as the accountability was blunted.

Too, the elite having tight grip on power and resources left democracy red-faced as the constitutionally mandated third tier of government, meant to pass the benefits of devolution down to the grassroots, was intentionally paralyzed.

Transforming Pakistan into an ethnic federation was another feat that the elite performed in the name of provincial autonomy as the doors were firmly shut on the creation of new provinces while reforming the Constitution (18th Amendment).

While this was done, power was never devolved to the grassroots level to ensure equitable distribution of power and resources thus scuttling the country’s chance to make a progress on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

While benefits of democracy were confined to the privileged sections of the society, loans from international financial institutions became a burden.

The elite were neither ready to return their privileges nor to pay their share of revenues. The whole burden was passed on to the lower and middle income groups while the social sector development budged (health and education) was drastically reduced.

The economy did not have the ability to pay off external debt on its own and investment was not coming from anywhere, not even from within the country.

Structural reforms were essential, but they required more borrowing. To rectify matters, a third party — Tehreek-e-Insaaf — was brought into the fray, which was not only meant to find a way to repay the external debt, but also to activate the third-tier of the government (local governments) so that progress could be made towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Due to the shock of the coronavirus and its thin majority in Parliament, the claims and promises of the PTI-led government were left in pieces.

It had to obtain loans from the IMF by selling the wheat reserves of the country and opted for its ouster from the corridors of power after its failure to handle the resulting storm of inflation.

Martial law not being the option, the ball went to the court of the thirteen-party anti-government alliance.

Whether the decision of the PTI to abandon Parliament and, consequently, leaving the country’s affairs in the hands of its opponents, was politically correct or wrong only time will decide, but the fact is that the elite has come back from all over the place and is trying to put the clock back to 2018.

Given its experiences of three-year rule, the PTI believes snap polls should be held so that it can return to Parliament with its full strength and, consequently, implement its agenda.

The PTI leadership is sure that the elite are not willing to compromise its interests in any way.

Only its decisive defeat in the elections can make structural reforms possible. Its insistence on two-third majority is, of course, like asking for the moon given the fact that elite capture is a reality and the majority of the voters are not free to express their will freely.

It was believed that Ishaq Dar would wave a magic wand and bring down the value of the dollar.

Though it seemed impossible to increase the exports, he was expected to stop the flight of the greenback.

After some initial successes, this matter is also done. Due to poor policies, Pakistan is importing essentials like wheat, pulses and cooking oil which consume a large share of foreign exchange.

The government has no control over oil and gas prices which are skyrocketing due to the Ukraine crisis.

The same is the case with electricity bills. Business is slow due to expensive energy and sources of employment are limited. How will inflation be reduced?

As for regional trade, which brings in quality consumer products and cheap raw material, relations with one of the world’s major economies, India, are poor, while Afghanistan and Iran, on the other hand, are under US sanctions.

China is a big economy but we are not even self-sufficient in what it needs, grain. Politics is stuck where it was decades back when the Charter of Democracy was signed.

With the PTI being in the field and standing firm against the dynastic politics, a similar consensus among the political actors is needed once again.

If the path to a sustainable economy is to be paved through democracy, then it is necessary to overhaul the political system.

This means that the legacy of the colonial era will have to be abandoned. A workable legal and administrative framework will have to be created, through constitutional and administrative reforms, for the implementation of fundamental rights.

Adapting the penal code of the British era to the requirements of the post-modern age and transferring the powers and resources to the lower level will increase the ability of democracy to put the country on the path of sustainable development.

As far as economic stagnation is concerned, the supremacy of Parliament cannot only make tax and structural reforms possible but also open the door on regional trade.

While Army has given a firm pledge of non-interference in politics and the country has principally committed itself to the principle of geo-economics, the sanity of political leadership can make a huge difference to change the direction of the country.

—The writer is politico-strategic analyst based in Islamabad.