Establishment, economy, elections | By Naveed Aman Khan


Establishment, economy, elections

IN Pakistan politics will shadow media maximum of the time and space and grip attention regarding general elections 2023. Political instability didn’t end with a dramatic no-confidence vote in parliament that ousted Imran from premiership. Instability and polarization have only heightened since then. Imran has led scattered and confused mob against the PDM coalition government and the military establishment, staging a series of propaganda- based rallies across the country since he has been voted out of Parliament through no – confidence motion. For politics-obsessed Pakistan, the biggest question remains who will win the next general election. Will Nawaz Sharif return to Pakistan to run as the head of his party, the PML-N? Can Imran win with the evident support of judiciary despite his unjustified confrontation with the military?

Pakistan is facing a precarious economic situation. Pakistan’s economy has been in crisis overtimes, predating the catastrophic floods. Inflation is backbreaking, the rupee’s value has fallen drastically and its foreign reserves have now dropped to the precariously low level of $3.8 billion, left to cover only one month’s worth of imports, raising the possibility of default. An economic crisis comes around every few years in Pakistan, borne out of an economy that doesn’t produce enough and spends too much, and is thus reliant on external debt. Every successive crisis is worse as the debt bill gets larger and payments become due. Internal political instability and the flooding catastrophe have worsened it. There is a significant external element to the crisis as well, with rising global food and fuel prices in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The combination of all these factors has spelled perhaps the greatest economic challenge Pakistan has ever seen.

Pakistan may end up avoiding default for the time being with IMF help and loans from friendly countries, like KSA and other Gulf countries. But those won’t address the clear underlying malaise of the economy – and the fact that something will need to change, in terms of how much the economy produces versus how much it spends, to avoid default down the road. None of Pakistan’s political parties seem to have the political will or ability to bring about such change. Pakistan must pay back $73 billion by 2025; it won’t be able to do so without debt restructuring. A “monsoon on steroids” – directly linked to climate change – caused flooding in Pakistan so catastrophic that it has been described as biblical. It left one third of the country under water – submerging hundreds of the villages – killed more than 7,760, destroyed countless homes, infrastructure and vast cropland, and left millions displaced. Millions of the people are still displaced from their homes and the floodwater still stands in some areas. It would be enormously difficult for any country to recover from such a disaster and rebuild lost infrastructure, including roads and schools, let alone a government dealing with a cash crunch like Pakistan’s.

The Pakistani Taliban (TTP), the terrorist group responsible for killing of thousands of Pakistanis from 2007 to 2014, have been emboldened – predictably so – by a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and once again pose a serious threat to Pakistan. The group engaged in at least 150 attacks in Pakistan last year, mostly in the northwest. Because the TTP has sanctuary in Afghanistan, the Pakistani state increasingly finds itself out of options when it comes to deal effectively with the group. The state’s negotiations with the TTP have failed repeatedly, as they are bound to, because the group is opposed to the notion of the Pakistani state and the Constitution as it exists today. The Afghan Taliban have also not proved to be of help in dealing with the TTP – and Pakistan’s relations with the Afghan Taliban have deteriorated significantly at the same time over other issues, including the border dividing the two countries. At this point, Pakistan’s first preference will be to strike kinetically at TTP targets within its borders, but that will be limited by TTP movement across the border into Afghanistan. That movement is what leaves Pakistan with the difficult-to-resolve TTP issue and complicates things beyond the military operation it launched against the group in 2014. Still, the Pakistani Taliban at this point are also one of the biggest threats Pakistan is faced with, given the country’s major political and economic challenges – but left unchecked, it could morph into a significant crisis.

Pakistan has a new chief of army staff as of November 29 last year. General Asim Munir replaced General Bajwa, who had held the all-powerful post for six years. The appointment of the army chief was a subject of considerable political contention last year; a major part of the reason Imran was ousted from power was his falling out with the military on questions over the appointment of top army officials. All eyes are now on how civil-military relations shape up under General Asim Munir. Under Bajwa, the military solidified its control behind the scenes. Bajwa presided over a close “same-page” relationship with Imran; when that frayed, the PML-N was eager to take Imran’s place as the military’s ally and head of the civilian government. Bajwa left office saying the army would no longer be involved in political matters; very few in Pakistan believe him. With politics set to dominate the agenda this year and an election imminent, General Asim Munir has a chance to show the country whether he will follow Bajwa doctrine, or chart Hafiz doctrine for civil-military relations in Pakistan.

—The writer is editor, book ambassador political analyst and author of several books based in Islamabad.

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