April 26, 2022
ISLAMABAD – AS anticipated, the Shehbaz Sharif government has faced many obstacles since it assumed power. Several impediments have been placed in the way of a smooth transition by leaders of the former ruling party. There are no parallels in the country’s history of similar disruptions in the transfer of power.
Imran Khan’s aim is to bring the parliamentary and political system to a halt and paralyse it to force early elections. His extra-parliamentary campaign to take to the streets and hold public rallies seeks to mount pressure on the government until it relents or the establishment intervenes. The large and enthusiastic rallies he has been addressing have encouraged him to continue down this path.
Last week’s meeting of the National Security Committee categorically rejected Khan’s claim of a foreign conspiracy to oust him. The statement issued after the meeting said: “The NSC, after reviewing the contents of the communication, the assessments received and conclusions presented by the security agencies, concludes that there has been no foreign conspiracy.”
This ought to put the controversy to rest. But it is unlikely to deter Khan from pressing this narrative. He is following a Trumpian playbook to whip up emotions among supporters who seem ready to buy his claim. He is firing up his base by speeches that fuse religion with nationalism. He and his party have also mainstreamed incivility both in their political rhetoric and conduct in pursuit of their objectives. This has injected a toxic content into politics.
The mayhem created in the Punjab Assembly stands out as one of the most shocking displays of misconduct by PTI lawmakers in forcibly preventing the vote to elect the new chief minister. Not only was the deputy speaker physically assaulted, with rowdy scenes witnessed live on television, but false claims were later made about who provoked the violence. This delayed proceedings by days and voting took place only after the Lahore High Court’s intervention.
The PTI governor then refused to administer the oath on the disingenuous grounds that the chief minister’s election was invalid. This left the province without a government for three weeks with the LHC finally asking the president to nominate someone else to administer the oath.
Khan’s campaign aims to pressure the government until it relents or the establishment intervenes.
This wasn’t the only reason why the Sharif government got off to an unsure start.
Cobbling together a coalition cabinet took longer than expected, underlining the difficulties of forging agreement among disparate parties. It left some unhappy and others bickering over portfolios. Nevertheless, a government of national unity holds the promise of providing consensual governance and strengthening the federation, given its composition and alliance between representatives of Punjab and Sindh. But it also suggests how challenging it will be to build consensus on policy. If the coalition can, however, work together on national goals this would set a new and healthy political tradition.
The government has an opportunity to take actions to establish its credibility. An important way is to clearly state its purpose in office, otherwise it will be seen as an arrangement whose only aim was to oust Khan. Because of the government’s short lifespan, it may only be able to deal with the urgent and not the important. But it can still offer a road map of what it hopes to accomplish in the months ahead, even if it is unable to finish work on these goals. It can distinguish itself from the previous government and also dispel scepticism about it by delivering competent governance.
Although the cabinet is a motley group, several ministers bring experience and a reputation of being capable. The prime minister himself has long been known as a ‘doer’ who knows how to get things done and moves with speed in ensuring the bureaucracy delivers.
The Sharif government should avoid mimicking PTI in expending its energy on assailing political opponents. Responding to Khan’s allegations and moves is one thing but obsessing about them will only distract it from the task of governing. Government leaders have repeatedly said that there will be no political vendettas or persecution of opponents but they must act on this. It would be tempting to put Khan under pressure to counter the challenge he poses but this would be counterproductive. It should be resisted for the country to break from the unseemly tradition of framing politically motivated cases against rivals.
The economy will be the make-or-break issue for the government. The situation is dire, which has urged Sharif to seek a swift resumption of the IMF programme as a top priority. The newly appointed finance minister is already in Washington hoping to quickly finalise a deal. This is necessary but not sufficient.
Of course, the first order of business is to stabilise the fragile macroeconomic situation, curb expenditure and secure funds to finance the record current account deficit and meet debt repayments. The greatest challenge is to curtail soaring inflation and not resort to more inflationary borrowing. Sharif has an opportunity in his initial days to show he can make more than a band-aid effort by measures that are a structural break from the past. These could include harmonising the convoluted sales tax structure, introducing a uniform system of import duties and cutting subsidies to loss-making state-owned enterprises.
The announcement of structural reforms to establish financial viability will show Sharif means business and can take tough decisions in the country’s interest. If he can get his coalition partners to agree on a reform package that would help to define the government’s purpose in power.
Sharif has already told the cabinet in its first meeting that economic stability, not politics, should be the priority and solutions must be found to the country’s energy crisis, rising debt and other pressing economic problems.
Imposing challenges lie ahead in a deeply polarised country. The democratic system itself is imperilled by the disruptive tactics of the former ruling party, unwilling to accept its ouster from power. Imran Khan has also threatened a march on Islamabad in his campaign against the government. For the coalition trying to govern in this fraught political environment there are formidable hurdles to overcome. But all political players should recognise that if the economy tanks all else will be in vain.