Before the 2018 general elections, there was optimism, hope and enthusiasm about the third consecutive transition of civilian rule in the country. For many of us, it was a new political tradition in the making because the people of Pakistan for the first time witnessed the emergence of a new leadership with promises to build a better Pakistan.
For the young people of Pakistan, the anti-corruption narrative introduced by the emerging leadership of the PTI was a real reason to participate in the electoral process. It was an opportunity to reconstruct the political structure of the country by dislodging hereditary politics. There was genuine hope for the beginning of a new political chapter for the youth of the urban middle class who had hitherto been excluded from the conventional powerbase of family dynasties. The struggle to access scarce national resources could only be translated into reality through a merit-based system of rewards. The educated youth of the middle class neither had the money nor the political clout to compete for equitable power share in a political culture of birthright privileges.
The slogan of ‘Naya Pakistan’ had political appeal for the middle class of the country to vote for change. And those who voted for change could not see, or did not want to burden their minds with, a complicated debate of structural impediments to transformative politics. The educated youth who voted for the PTI thought they had seen some light at the end of the tunnel. At least there was one person who was persistent in his unending anti-corruption tirade and struggle for an inclusive Pakistan. This person became the centre of attention for those who gravitated towards the PTI.
There were at least two types of people who joined the PTI. First were those enthusiasts who wanted to see Pakistan transform into a merit-based, inclusive and prosperous country. These enthusiastic young people had a genuine belief in the charisma and ability of Imran Khan to build a better Pakistan. Born and brought up under a time of tumultuous economic hardship, corruption and terrorism, these young people were disillusioned by the predecessors of Imran Khan. The conventional political parties neither had the political will nor the vision to bring about a transformative change in the system of crony-capitalism. The state continued to protect the political and economic interests of traditional powerful classes and hence the process of marginalisation of the middle and lower classes continued despite democratic governments coming into power after the end of the Musharraf era.
When we demonise the youth for making a bad political choice, we usually downplay the severity of challenges which surround the educated and ambitious 134 million young people of Pakistan. While the political promises of the PTI turned out to be larger than life, they cannot be attributed to the political choices made by the young people.
The previous confidence of the youth has now started to shake because of both the public ridicule of their choices as well as the failure of the PTI to deliver on its promises. Now there lies a real danger that the political participation of the youth may start to dwindle even if the democratic transition continues in the country. The most alarming outcome would be the reversion to the old system of political patronage more fully (though the incumbent prime minister relies on the same system of patronage).
The second type of people who chose to join the PTI were political opportunists who saw in the party an emerging political force in the country. For them, the PTI was a better platform for sudden political ascend which they could not achieve in their traditional political parties. These people started to gradually capture key positions within the PTI. They were afraid of real accountability and all they wanted was selective accountability as public eyewash. Before the general elections of 2018, the PTI became a hodgepodge of varying political interests – each driven by the agenda of traditional powerful political classes.
It was a critical juncture for Imran Khan – to decide whether he wanted to see his party become a transformative political force representing the aspirations of the middle and lower classes or a handmaiden of powerful classes like his predecessors. As a matter of pragmatic political choice, Imran Khan decided to go with the latter choice; and the hopes of youth were dashed once again since the time of Z.A Bhutto. Today, the PTI has started to lose its popular traction and has become like one of the traditional political parties in the race of realpolitik but with much less rigour and vision than the PPP and PML-N on economic and political issues of national significance.
If we look at the overall performance of the PTI since it assumed political power, the overall health of the national economy has gone down phenomenally. Today, circular debt has reached Rs1.5 trillion with an upward move as compared to Rs1.4 billion in January 2019. International borrowing during the last six months has reached to $15 billion without a visible national investment and economic development plan in place. State-run enterprises are losing billions of rupees on a daily basis and the promises of reforms and good governance have not translated into a pragmatic reforms’ package.
GDP growth has declined from 5.8 percent last year to 4 percent during the fiscal year of 2019, while the unemployment ratio has increased by 6 percent in the same period. The Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) predicts that the economic growth rate will further plummet to 2.9 percent during the next year which will trigger unemployment and huge inflation. The rupee has been devalued by 30 percent, which has added more burden on the domestic economy of the middle and lower classes with a price hike of grocery items and more than 100 percent increase in utility bills.
More bad news is yet to come when the government will go for an IMF loan package with strict conditionality to remove relief and subsidy on products and services meant for low-income populations. The most astonishing thing amidst an impending economic crisis is the lack of economic planning and failure to provide a realistic roadmap for reviving the economy. It seems as if economic affairs are being run on an ad-hoc basis and there is no will and vision to revamp the economy even to the level of 2016-17.
All promises of radical economic reforms, improved governance, political decentralisation, job creation and housing etc have proven to be mere political sloganeering. The youth that voted for the PTI expect much better than this from their political leader. This is the right time for the PTI’s leadership to take some immediate steps for course correction before it gets too late for them to prevent a potential political backlash – which does not seem too far away.
The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.