PTI govt: a short-lived respite

Published: December 17, 2019
Prime Minister Imran Khan. PHOTO: FILE

Prime Minister Imran Khan. PHOTO: FILE

Prime Minister Imran Khan. PHOTO: FILE The writer is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research. He tweets @hasaankhawar

The PTI government has been witnessing a roller-coaster ride since the time it came to power. After an initial honeymoon period, reality started to set in, as the government tried to juggle with multiple challenges one after the other. Economic uncertainty prevailed, opposition gathered momentum, and the weak governance in Punjab became the talk of the town.

Realising the gravity of the situation, the government made multiple adjustments through tough economic measures, political concessions, alterations in the cabinet, overhaul of the economic team, and administrative changes. Finally, after 15 months into the government it seems that the situation has calmed down. If there was ever a moment of respite for the PTI government, it is now.

On the political front, the Supreme Court’s decision on the army chief’s extension laid many rumours to rest. The JUI-F dharna fizzled out without any untoward situation. And with Nawaz Sharif in London and Asif Zardari on bail, the political temperature is cooling off.

On the economic front, after a turbulent ride, the dust is finally settling. The macro-economic indicators show some cautious optimism, with twin deficits improving, exchange rate in control, an impeccable first quarter review by IMF, donor money pouring in, and the stock market recovering.

On governance, Punjab has been a sore point since Usman Buzdar was appointed as chief minister. Critics started questioning his candidature right away but with time even the sympathisers joined hands in critiquing the Buzdar-led regime, characterised with frequent transfers, postings, indecision and corruption. After months of reluctance, the government recently provided a bureaucratic antidote, with a new team parachuted to Lahore, fully empowered to do what’s necessary to bring back the semblance of good governance. Although the lawyers’ fiasco has not been a good omen for the new team, even this crisis is likely to taper off with time.

And on reforms, the initial narrative of PTI’s unreal promises of five million houses and ten million jobs has given way to talks of more concrete initiatives like the Ehsaas programme, Sehat Insaf Card and Digital Pakistan.

But knowing the political climate of the country, this respite is likely to be short-lived. The army chief’s extension still needs a legislative fix, which might necessitate more concessions for the opposition. The early signs of economic stability have yet to give way to growth and job creation. The fiscal discipline necessary for the IMF programme would mean hardly any money left for real development. And Punjab’s new governance model, which may solve the administrative crisis, is likely to lead to a new political debacle as soon as the PTI MPAs realise that with the CM being marginalised they have also been excluded from the power corridors.

The government should therefore use this time to consolidate its successes and take some strategic decisions to pre-empt any future crises. The first is to look for a more permanent political solution to Punjab’s governance challenge, creating a fine balance between a high performing meritocratic regime and a participatory setup, where legislators are not altogether alienated. The second is to cement the fissures within the ruling coalition. There is a strong feeling that too many outsiders are calling the shots, with party stalwarts playing second fiddle. Thirdly, there is an immediate need to address the more difficult structural economic challenges like state-owned enterprises and circular debt to create much-needed fiscal space to deliver on the ambitious electoral promises.

The government must realise that at best, the present signs of stability take us back to 2017 and that’s not going to fly in the next elections. If the PTI is serious about creating a lasting legacy, this is just the starting point of a very long road ahead.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2019.

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