To the hustings?

Editorial Board
May 17, 2022

The four political rallies held on Sunday made one thing very clear: whatever the end game may be regarding the timing of the next general election, Pakistan’s political parties are already...

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The four political rallies held on Sunday made one thing very clear: whatever the end game may be regarding the timing of the next general election, Pakistan’s political parties are already thinking of the election as far as their outreach to the people is concerned. Imran Khan made the usual blistering attacks on the sitting government; Maryam Nawaz continued to use all her fierceness towards just one goal: mock Imran and his narrative; Bilawal Bhutto counseled prudent economic actions; and Mustafa Kamal pegged himself as the antidote to Karachi’s contentious politics. While Imran’s narrative and jalsa rhetoric is hardly surprising, and makes perfect sense given his dramatic ouster, what is surprising is the coalition parties seemingly focusing more on outreach than cabinet-level decision-making. This just fuels the rumours that abound regarding a push for early elections and a government unable to sustain the pressure it finds itself in. When the new government finally took charge, many were of the view that a large coalition government like this one would have to complete its tenure because why else would any party agree to be part of a government for a month or two. The economic mess the previous government left the country in was visible to all. The much-touted ‘tough economic decisions’ may or may not be the way out, but this level of dilly-dallying – from a cabinet made of experienced, competent (or so it was thought) individuals – certainly hasn’t inspired much confidence in the government. It has also made clear that there is still some sort of confusion when it comes to the question of when Pakistan goes to the polls.

The initial signals were clearer: the government would complete its term and hold elections in 2023, after having conducted ‘electoral reforms’. Wiser minds have pointed out that the said reforms could have been managed within weeks, and the country could have gone for an early election. There is now even talk of the government opting to dissolve the assemblies in the coming weeks before the budget and announce new elections. The PPP has been sticking to the original plan and is asking for ‘tough decisions’, the PML-N is giving out varying opinions on the elections and the economy, and the PTI would rather an election take place tomorrow. In all this, there is the added pressure of the fragile coalition made up of unlikely allies: any signal for a change in tack could mean the government losing these allies – though the MQM and BAP have categorically stated they will not bow to any ‘pressure’. If there is pressure for early elections, especially from political powerbrokers, and there is further worsening of the economy, then no government would want to be the one holding the reins at the moment. If there is any doubt that the government may not be allowed to complete its remaining tenure, it would rather save its electoral chances now and go for early elections. On the economic front, Miftah Ismail faces an unenviable task of juggling IMF expectations, a people already miserable under the PTI-led inflation, and growing calls from economists to remove petrol subsidies. The government goes to talks with the IMF tomorrow. If it can manage to get the IMF on board about the subsidy issue, there may yet be a chance for the government to try and salvage the situation and work towards elections next year.

The dilemma facing the Shehbaz Sharif government is: they go for early elections and it looks like they have ceded space to Imran Khan. They don’t go for early elections, present an unpopular budget and their chances may be doomed come next election. Not all rumours should be believed in a country where WhatsApp forwards are the most loved literature – but the past few weeks have thrown us surprise after surprise. The coalition government took a risk to oust Imran Khan when he was at his most unpopular. Now they risk going into elections when he is extremely popular and people seem to have forgotten why we are in an economic crisis in the first place. The government is set to meet all coalition allies today for a consensus decision on the economy. Whatever the decisions, they should be announced soon instead of making the government look even more incompetent than its predecessor.

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