Government’s journey so far

Given the recent events, the job approval of the prime minister must have grown even more steadily

Farrukh Khan Pitafi March 16, 2019
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and tweets @FarrukhKPitafi

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s job approval continues to grow steadily. A nationwide survey by International Republican Institute (IRI) revealed on March 14 that a combined 57 per cent of respondents either believed that the PM was doing a ‘very good job’ or a ‘good job’.

A total representative sample of 3,991 with a legal voting age contributed to the survey through in-home, in-person interviews. One significant caveat needs to be spelt out here that although the survey results come out at a time when the government has completed its 200 days in office it was conducted between November 1 and 22, nearly around the time when it was about to finish its first 100 days in power.

Along with the job approval the faith in the impartiality of the electoral process also seems to have grown. Some 83 per cent of respondents believe that the results were either ‘completely free and fair’ (50 per cent) or ‘somewhat free and fair’ (33 per cent).

Given the nature of national discourse in the national media surrounding the July 2018 elections at the time, this is not a modest achievement.

But does this survey identify any potential weaknesses or vulnerabilities. Fortunately, the survey identifies economy as the area of concern. I say fortunately because this shows that the citizens of the country have the right sort of priorities. About 39 per cent believe that inflation is the biggest problem facing the country, 18 per cent see unemployment as the biggest challenge and 15 per cent poverty.

About 77 per cent of the respondents between 18 and 35 think unemployment is the most important issue for the young people. Make a mental note here. This is important because this is the most significant part of the PTI’s voter base — the youth.

So where does the PTI government stand after another hundred days? In my humble view, given the recent events including the effective handling of the tiff with our eastern neighbours, the job approval of the Prime Minister must have grown even more steadily.

One clear improvement upon the previous governments is the bonhomie the incumbents enjoy with the permanent institutions of the state. It might be nothing when it comes to previous governments, but in the hour of national crises they often fall prey to the country’s detractors.

From Memogate to Dawn Leaks how they chose to respond to perceived or real challenges did not invite much confidence. Imran Khan, however, seems oblivious of any conspiracy theories which often turn out to be mind games played by the country’s detractors as part of their offensive defence. By working closely with state institutions, PM Khan and his brilliant foreign minister have come up with awe-inspiring outcomes.

Economics, however, is another matter. The country sought assistance from friendly nations and even managed to get a sizable investment commitment from Saudi Arabia, remittances have increased 12 per cent and government is working to attract foreign direct investment. But the twin deficits — of trade and budget — are nowhere near resolution.

A very hung parliament means that it faces considerable difficulty in pushing the necessary agenda through the legislature. Meanwhile, job creation and resolution of the middle-income housing issue, two pillars of the PTI’s campaign promises, still await a big bang.

Now, the knee-jerk reaction is to immediately point fingers. The easiest way is to blame the man responsible for the economic policy: Asad Umar. But a look at the Finance Supplementary (Second Amendment) Bill, 2019 shows that the man knows what he is doing.

But should he not be held accountable for the dithering about going to the IMF? Actually not. It is true that when it became clear that the PTI was to form government, news broke that the IMF was ready with a package worth $12 billion, which immediately attracted sharp reaction from the US secretary of state and dramatic announcement of the unscheduled retirement of the fund’s chief economist.

The purported package was most likely the handiwork of the caretaker finance minister. But the fact is that the boat had been missed already. Had the caretaker government not tied its own hands by adopting a strict mandate for itself barring it from working on a long-term arrangement, a byproduct of having a former judge as caretaker premier, it could easily have consulted all major parties, built consensus and sought a bailout.

In this volatile global political order, you should never risk something as significant as this. You should never ask money to wait on you, it never does. By the time the PTI came into power, the situation had worsened significantly. Add to it the issues pertaining to the FATF, India’s clout being used against Pakistan and the PTI’s own pre-election statements about not going to the IMF.

It is clear that the government is now convinced of the efficacy of going to the Fund and is waiting until the end of the current financial year to see if the global atmospherics change by then. Let us hope they do.

And this is not all. The PTI government has other Achilles heels too. One is Punjab. A recent decision by the provincial assembly to raise the salaries of the deputies, ministers and even the chief minister has deeply disappointed the prime minister. But that is not all.

The party is still trying to find a path forward to fulfil its promises of creating the South Punjab province and ensuring devolution of power to the grass-roots level. The latter, the more realistic goal, needs to progress quickly or whatever momentum the provincial government has gained risks being reversed.

Another serious concern is of the infighting. It will not be an exaggeration to say that over the years the PTI has developed a huge critical mass of bright minds and very capable technocrats. But with talent, you also get personalities, ambitions, rivalries and competition. Since there are only so many cabinet level posts available, a fair amount of turf wars ensue. And it is fine as long as the country you are ruling faces no or very few serious challenges.

This is how Donald Trump rules his country after all. However, for a nation which needs huge reforms, has a hung parliament and where time is of essence, this can waste precious time and resources. This is where the prime minister needs to intervene directly. Only he enjoys the kind of influence within the party to resolve such disputes. Sit them down and ask them to find a way to work in tandem.

Two more issues with the potential to blindside the government are Nawaz Sharif’s health and the media. Media still doesn’t have a handle on how to cover the government. And the former premier’s health can harm the political culture if it worsens further. The party must also be missing Jahangir Tareen’s magical touch.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 16th, 2019.

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