Pakistan’s Political Scene: Troubled Government and Divided Opposition?

Assistant Editor of Global Village Space discusses the malaise in the political system in which a troubled and ineffective government is faced by a disorientated and incompetent opposition, which has not yet deciphered the message that the country needs issue-based politics by a leadership untainted by corruption allegations.


Rizwan Shehzad |

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government is in trouble. It is stuck with a tough economic situation ever since it came into power. As politely as one can say, the economic policies of the incumbent government are not working nor producing the desired results. Pakistan’s growth rate is now at historic lows, around 3.3% and the government has admitted that it will grow only at the rate of 2.4% over the next 12 months. Balance of payment problem still looms large despite getting support from China, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

PTI government has presented several mini-budgets since it came to power in August. It has frequently revised tariff rates for gas and electricity upwards, jacked-up prices of petrol, utility and healthcare items. A government desperate to collect revenues has introduced the amnesty scheme, but despite lots of public fear, most people are not stepping forward. Key functionaries, including the prime minister himself, are on record – before coming to power – that they will hunt down each and everyone who benefited from Amnesty schemes of earlier governments.

It is thus no wonder that few trust the government’s commitments. The dollar rose from 127 to 164, and still, no one can guarantee where it will finally rest. Apparently, the dollar was far higher than the Real Effective Exchange Rate (REER), now many are not ready to buy the idea that rupee is still overvalued, however, till this moment, the exchange rate market is not stabilizing; it is being ruled by insecurities, fears, and various speculations.

Given this situation, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government, is becoming more and more unpopular with those who did not vote for it and its supporters are getting less and less enthusiastic. To add insult to injury, the government has made several changes in the cabinet as well as on several key positions in the last ten months.

From ex-finance minister Asad Umar to the Chairman Board of Investment Haroon Sharif, from Governor State Bank of Pakistan to the Chairman Federal Board of Revenue and Secretary Finance people have seen more radical reshuffles in the first year of the PTI government than ever before.

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Qamar Zaman Kaira had said that the combined opposition would ‘fix the government’ in the interest of people

Currently, the premier is surrounded by the non-elected members or the ones who had jumped the ship onto PTI bandwagon from other parties before the 2018 elections. Forget about the people who had been with PM Khan for the last 20 odd years, the ones who were with him for the past five years ago are not being seen anywhere in the new picture. Few exceptions are Murad Saeed, Faisal Vawda, Zulfiqar Bukhari, etc.

Business Condition in ‘Naya Pakistan’

Business community feels that the government sounds more desperate than directional. And through its shrill rhetoric has empowered the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), and Sindh Anti-Corruption Establishment (ACE) in a way that has never been done in the past quarter-century.

Government’s focus remains only on collecting taxes. It has set itself an almost impossible target of Rs. 5500 billion collections – 40 percent more than this year. But is unable to deal with reducing government expenditures and losses by state-owned enterprises, PIA, Steel Mills, Discos, Pakistan Railways and scores of other public sector entities are eating away around Rs. 1100 to Rs. 1300 billion each year, and installed capacity agreements with IPPs are putting up a bill of almost Rs. 500 billion much higher than the actual production or consumption. In 10 months, the PTI government has shown little resolve or even will to do anything to tackle this bleeding.

On the face of it all this appears to be a God-sent opportunity for the country’s opposition to exploit. But Pakistan’s so-called “combined opposition” is competing with the Khan government in terms of disorientation and confusion. This remained hidden from the public eye until the second week of June. But then the recently concluded All Parties Conference (APC) brought all this out.

Before Eid, the opposition parties had thrown the gauntlet; they had declared that after Ramadan, there would be a massive street movement against the government. Either they will fix the government or will throw it out – one PPP leader had thundered. “We won’t let the anti-public budget pass” most had declared.

For a moment, it seemed that the lawyer community would also support opposition parties because of the issue of references against the superior courts’ judges. But money is often more potent than principles. Apparently, the government distributed Rs. 175 million of taxpayers’ money among 133 bar associations to win over their support.

Read more: Nawaz Sharif can destroy country for personal interest, claims Imran

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Qamar Zaman Kaira had said that the combined opposition would ‘fix the government’ in the interest of people, adding that the government would face stern opposition in and outside of the parliament. Several key leaders of PPP had passed jarring statements right after NAB arrested PPP co-chairman and former president Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leadership has already been edgy since the Panama papers fallout and incarceration of the PML-N Quaid and former PM Nawaz Sharif.

It was hoped that the united opposition would come up with an action plan or provide some solution. The APC that was called to show resolve, however, brought out extreme divisions within the folds of PPP and PML-N on one side and within PPP, PML-N and Maulana Fazlur Rehman on the other. And then there were sharp and witty statements that made it evident that the PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif and his niece, PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz, were not on the same page.

APC’s Agenda and Goals

There was an expectation that opposition would get support from Balochistan National Party (BNP) Chairman Akhtar Mengal and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), but nothing of that sort happened. Instead, BNP and MQM rejoined the government. Mengal made his position stronger on the issue of missing persons, while the MQM was happy after getting another portfolio. Meanwhile, Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), the major coalition partner of PTI in Punjab, capitalized on the advantage and obtained its third ministry in Punjab. All colors of the traditional politics were once again on display.

An opposition that had threatened to topple the government or stop its money bill settled for much less. It instead decided that it will oust Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani and mark July 25 as black day to mark their protest against alleged rigging in the last election. This is like ‘Khisiyani Billi Khamba Noche’ (Hitting a pole in frustration) because it was no one else but PPP’s Zardari who had engineered Sanjrani’s victory.

The APC also made it clear to everyone – if indeed such clarity was needed – that Maulana Fazlur Rehman is merely trying to use PPP and PML-N for his advantage, and will like to improve his bargaining position with the forces that matter. PPP that has a stable government in Sindh and PML-N that has a vast presence in Punjab as well as in Senate and the National Assembly were in no mood to let Maulana use them for his little political act.

Every democracy needs a strong opposition. And Pakistan’s incompetent government lacks an effective opposition

Within PML-N circles, the leadership contest between Shahbaz Sharif and Maryam is becoming more and more obvious. Shahbaz is often seen as a pragmatic person; who wishes to compromise with the system to end cases, the one who is seen as soft on the PTI government and the one who has connections with the establishment. On the other hand, Maryam appears as someone who feels entitled and tries to speak as if the whole PML-N belongs only to Nawaz Sharif and his children, and she is the one who has to inherit the mantle.

The differences between Shahbaz and Maryam danced on the political theatre when she sarcastically made her famous comment that she considers “Meesaq-e-Maeeshat” (charter of the economy) as “Mazaq-e-Maeeshat” (a joke with the economy). Initially, Shahbaz looked embarrassed, but after a couple of days, he said that he agrees with what Maryam said. His reversal confirmed the worst fears of those political analysts who had always argued that “Shahbaz is merely an appointed administrator and has no leader in him.”

As could be expected, inside the parliament, the opposition alliance created an entertaining ruckus to disturb the government, delivered some sarcastic speeches, exchanged shrilled barbs and succeeded in making the word “selected” a point of constant irritation, but all this is not even close to making the government weak. Admittedly, it did create amusing optics and headlines, but that’s all it is, as the government comfortably passed the budget for 2019-20. Outside parliament, there was, and there is nothing so far. Moreover, among the media circles in the capital, there are rumors that PPP is willing to strike a deal for its jailed leadership; this may take the form of a plea-bargain- something Nawaz Sharif is still not ready to do.

Nawaz and Zardari

Pakistan’s political history has reached a point, where an ineffective troubled government is pitted against an equally incompetent opposition. This is a moment that demands transition inside the opposition. PPP and PML-N require effective secondary leadership within their ranks; they need a leadership which is untainted of corruption allegations, that can do issue-based politics and provide some solutions to the economic mess.

This new leadership should also be in a position to cooperate with the government on essential things in the larger interest of the public and the nation, such as privatization of state-owned enterprises, negotiations with the IPPs, dealing with the IMF and FATF. No reforms, or meaningful progress, can take place if the opposition is just for the sake of opposition – as it is happening at the moment when media and government end up taunting Maryam and Bilawal as representatives of “Abbu Bachao Tehreek” (save our father’s movement) instead of taking them as serious policy and solution-oriented leaders.

Currently, despite, all the rhetoric of “economic mismanagement by incompetent government,” a narrative expertly shaped by the opposition, a large section of media and public believe that PPP and PMLN leadership are responsible for the debts that now bleed Pakistan. There is a serious element of truth in this belief. Pakistan’s external loans were less than $40 billion when Musharraf government left in 2008; these now stand at nearly $100 billion — the bulk of it borrowed from the World Bank, IMF, Asian Development Bank, Islamic Development Bank, the US, China, France, and other countries.

Read more: Imran’s reminder: Corruption is the only ideology of Nawaz

Since 1947, the government supporters argue that Pakistan fought wars, expanded the nuclear program, bore the pressure of Afghan war, built large dams and developed rail & road infrastructure across the country yet the external loan remained around $38 billion. They claim that the current opposition leadership has no satisfactory answers to the question as to how Pakistan’s external debt reached roughly $100 billion from $38 billion in just 10 years.

Every democracy needs a strong opposition. And Pakistan’s incompetent government lacks an effective opposition. But this opposition cannot grow out of the current lot of “Abbu Bachao Tehreek” – moment demands new faces untainted with the burdens of past and new minds with fresh ideas. Unless this happens the current regime – however incompetent it may appear – will continue to sell more and more dreams to a public desperate to hear something positive.

Rizwan Shehzad is the Assistant Editor, Global Village Space. He has previously worked with The Express Tribune. He tweets at: @RizwanShehxad.

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