Why paradigm shift in Pakistan’s politics?

As Imran Khan’s popularity falls following the passage of the annual budget

Dr Moonis Ahmar July 19, 2019
Prime Minister Imran Khan. PHOTO: FILE

According to a political survey conducted by Gallup Pakistan, after completing 10 months in government, Imran Khan’s popularity has fallen following the passage of the annual budget. His rating fell from 58% in April 2019 to 48% in July — a significant drop of 10% in two months. However, the survey stated that despite its downward popularity because of the IMF programme and sharp escalation in prices of essential commodities, the PTI has maintained its edge as the single-largest political party.

Has there been a paradigm shift in Pakistan’s political scenario? Is there a possibility of the PPP and the PML-N coming to power again? Has the PTI’s inept mode of governance provided space to the two major opposition parties for their political rehabilitation? Is former president Asif Ali Zardari’s prediction of Imran Khan’s government coming to an end in four to five months’ time based on political acumen or mere speculation? The legitimate way to remove Imran Khan from office is to launch a vote of no-confidence in the National Assembly, provided the opposition parties are able to cause a dent in the rank and file of the coalition government in order to get the required number of votes. The possibility to dislodge the government through street agitation exists, but it may result in driving the country into anarchy.

While one can have reservations about the Gallup survey (and there can also be a margin of error in it) the prevailing political environment of Pakistan may indicate a paradigm shift from the ‘PTI wave’ of July 2018 to the ‘opposition wave’ in July 2019. It is not merely the failure of the PTI government to provide relief to the people buried under multiple economic hardships — such as increasing prices of essential commodities — but its inability to run Parliament in an amicable manner is also a major issue. If the PTI’s performance in the past year had been better, the opposition would not have been in a position to mobilise people on the roads and exploit the PTI’s fragile majority in the National Assembly and its insignificant minority in the Senate in order to exert pressure on the government.

This paradigm shift is possible because of three main reasons. Firstly, resentment against the PTI government has grown in the last two months. Unpopular changes like the depreciation of the rupee vis-a-vis the US dollar and other foreign currencies cannot be overlooked. A US dollar that was worth Rs122 before the 2018 elections is now at Rs160. The prices of gas and electricity have almost doubled in the past year. CNG prices increased from Rs102 per kilo to Rs123 two weeks ago. The prices of roti and naan doubled from Rs6 and Rs10 respectively, causing severe unpopularity of the PTI regime amongst the masses. The cost of other essential commodities and public transport in the last two months has also increased, contributing to the erosion of the government’s popularity.

No government has undergone this sharp decline in popularity in such a short span of time as the PTI. Imran Khan’s promises of eradicating corruption, nepotism, establishing the rule of law and providing relief to the common people have failed to materialise. Secondly, people are no longer accepting the PTI’s claim that the PPP and the PML-N are responsible for the prevailing economic malaise and crisis in governance. People are right in arguing that the PTI knew about the country’s economic situation, corruption and the gap in balance of payments before the 2018 elections. Imran Khan had assured voters that his team had started working to introduce the right kind of economic reforms to rid the country of foreign aid by utilising the country’s resources. Yet, no qualitative change has taken place in ameliorating the socio-economic conditions of the people. Instead, in the past year, prices of essential commodities have almost doubled. The purchasing power of an ordinary person has never been so low in the history of Pakistan. The PTI government sought loans of $10 billion along with $6 billion from the IMF and $3 billion for providing oil on credit. A paradigm shift in politics requires a push but will such a change relieve the people from the economic malaise?

Thirdly, there are people in the PTI’s ranks who are highly dissatisfied with the economic crisis causing sharp unpopularity amongst the people. There are concerns about the competence and calibre of the PM. The team which had originally formed the PTI and went through a rigorous process of seeking popular support is almost gone. The party now primarily comprises those who joined the bandwagon a few years ago when it was predicted to be the third force that would come to power in the next elections. If the PTI faces internal dissent and the real wielders of power decide to ditch Imran Khan because of his growing unpopularity, the outcome will either be fresh elections or a vote of no-confidence against the PM. A military takeover may not be possible because of obvious internal and external implications.

Will the shift in the political landscape benefit the masses, remains to be seen. Changing faces will not result in any qualitative change in the declining socio-economic conditions. The people have tested the PPP and the PML-N for three decades and both these parties are being held responsible for the country’s economic problems. The retirement of Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif will pave the way for Bilawal and Maryam to lead the country’s politics. But will the two parties, representing dynastic politics, benefit the people of Pakistan? During his long political struggle, Imran Khan used to remind people that if they do not break the monopoly of the PPP and the PML-N, their future generations should be prepared to be slaves to the children of Zardari and the Sharif brothers.

A year after the elections, one needs to analyse the extent to which the third force has broken the monopoly of the PPP and the PML-N, and changed the political culture of the country. Are the people better off in Naya Pakistan or were better off before? The PTI government is credited with launching a rigorous accountability drive, controlling expenditures, reducing current account deficit and bringing non-filers under the tax net. But the same government is also known for taking U-turns on several policy matters and is criticised for dealing with issues with traders and opposition in a non-professional manner. Principally, the paradigm shift in Pakistan’s electoral politics should come after five years with the completion of the government’s term. However, critics argue that the changes in the one year of the PTI’s government are so painful that if they are allowed to remain in power for another four years, they will wreak havoc on the people.

Unfortunately, unlike other countries with towering personalities that can influence and manage crises, Pakistan lacks such political and social figures that can advise the government in setting its priorities or can act as a buffer between the opposition and the government standoff.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2019.

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