Dawn of a new era or more of the same?

Published: August 8, 2018
The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board

The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board

The incoming government faces huge challenges but enjoys a significant advantage. It brings enormous energy and enjoys considerable goodwill from a major segment of the population, both rich and poor, across the country. Its leader carries less baggage, as he has never been in government, which is a distinct advantage over his predecessors.

Expectations of the public are high and it is to be seen how the promises made during the election campaign by Imran Khan and spelled out in the PTI manifesto would be met. More specifically, what would be the ingredients or vehicles of change?

A laudable goal of the party is to modernise Pakistan. One of the prerequisites to achieve it demands a major transformation in the power structure of Pakistan’s politics. It would also require greater harmony and change of culture and attitude among institutions. The question is whether the influential classes would be willing to shed their power that easily or continue to prefer the status quo. Imran Khan is likely to exercise power in areas that in the past remained with the military. This is in the domain of foreign, defence and security policy that he alluded to in his acceptance speech. How will it play out will be keenly watched.

As regards the attitude of foreign powers, indications are that Britain and European countries would be supportive of Imran in the consolidation of democracy. China would remain the closest ally and Russia would be equally prepared to work with the government. The US will be influenced more by the fact how best the new Pakistani government serves its geo-political and strategic interests. More specifically, its demand that Pakistan bring pressure on the Taliban leadership to engage in a political dialogue.

The turbulent situation in Afghanistan has given the Pakistan military an added influence in the region. Lack of interest or involvement of the previous civilian governments in foreign policy in general and the Afghan policy in particular has given the military-to-military engagement between Pakistan and the US a further boost to its power. It is to be seen to what extent the PTI government plays a role in formulation and execution of foreign policy.

The incoming government will have to take hard decisions on the economy and undertake taxation and economic reforms. The country needs financial resources for spending on education and health sectors that have been neglected in the past.

No country can claim to be truly independent if its economy remains dependent on foreign assistance.

Moreover, if a country wants to be a part of a modern market economy, it must take politics seriously. Otherwise it will run into an unstable situation both economically and politically, as has been the case with us for decades.

Pakistan suffers like other weak democracies from commercialisation of power, which means it is only those with money who can get into power. One face of it is the electable. Even seasoned politicians can remain relevant provided they are in a position to spend lavishly as recent elections demonstrated. The MQM has been an exception to this rule. They have been fielding politicians who are from the middle and lower middle class by using party funds. However, the party’s source of funding remains a question mark.

If corruption is to be eliminated, which has been the principal plank of the PTI then its leadership will have to take parliamentary democracy seriously. Without checks and balances on expenditures, controlling corruption is not possible. Merely shouting hoarse against corruption would not be enough.

The reason why Scandinavian, European and Far Eastern countries were able to reduce or eliminate corruption was essentially by strengthening democratic institutions. Pakistan too will have to firm up its institutions to tackle this challenge. A more uniform yardstick of accountability for all institutions is the hallmark of democracy that we need to emulate.

The Pakistan military more than any institution values economic success. Without significant economic growth in the next few years, modernising the armed forces and enhancing their capabilities would be difficult. However, placing the economy on sound lines and ensuring that is self-sustaining would require faithful implementation of economic reforms and significant changes in the distribution and control of economic resources.

What level of interest Imran Khan would show in the affairs of parliament and building the structures of democracy is critical. For taking the nation on board on major issues and particularly the economy intense involvement of parliament would be necessary.

In the past, political governments have unfairly used bureaucrats to advance their narrow political or personal interests. The incoming government would need a dedicated and efficient bureaucracy to improve governance and faithfully implement reforms. Over the years political manipulation and corruption have resulted in serious decline of the services provided by the bureaucracy. The practice of advancing narrow political objectives through economic governance have weakened the bureaucracy and slowed down economic growth.

Fortunately, despite these setbacks there are still several efficient and dedicated bureaucrats that the incoming government could rely on. Simultaneously, it will have to inject fresh blood in the bureaucracy of talented and motivated young people.

The fate of public-sector enterprises cannot continue to hang in balance. PIA is running at a huge loss, the Steel Mills is bankrupt and beyond redemption. Similarly, the railways cannot continue in the present shape. It has to be upgraded, modernised and financially restructured. These entities are bleeding profusely and the government will have to take major decisions soon about their privatisation or restructuring.

Corruption remains endemic and confronting it, as a challenge, is the right course as Imran Khan has persistently advocated. The real test of tackling it seriously will come when he is able to overcome resistance from those groups, including the ones in his party, who have a vested interest in retaining the status quo.

Pakistan needs to regain its respect and place in the community of nations. This would only be possible if the professed laudable goal and plans were to materialise.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2018.

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