The World Bank President David Malpass arrived in Pakistan last week, and so did a high-level delegation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Malpass’s visit came apparently against the backdrop of the World Bank’s inclusion of Pakistan among the world’s top ten countries, which made significant progress to ensure ease of doing business.
“Your country jumped to 108th place from 136th last year. Your reforms made it easier for the entrepreneurs to start business, get electricity and construction permits, register property, pay taxes and trade across border," Malpass said at an event held in Islamabad, which was also attended by Prime Minister Imran Khan.
He was confident that the reforms taken by Pakistan would create job opportunities, attract investment – both local and foreign – and generate more revenues for the government.
Prime Minister Imran Khan told the same event that his government is committed to ensuring transparency and good governance through institutional reforms and socio-economic development as part of measures to bolster the economy.
The IMF delegation is on a two-week trip to hold first staff-level review for the IMF bailout package approved for Pakistan in May.
Interestingly, the arrival of the World Bank chief as well as the IMF team coincided with the so-called long march organised by the Jamiat-e-ulema-Islam faction led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman in Islamabad.
Moreover, the visits of international financial institutions’ officials also came at the time when the traders community of the country was on a strike against the taxation reforms introduced by the PTI government.
Before the arrival of these delegations, the government’s troubleshooter, Jehangir Tareen succeeded in persuading the protesting traders to call off their strike after Advisor to the Prime Minister Abdul Hafiz Sheikh announced taxation concessions for the traders at a news conference.
It is heartening that the opposition protest did not interrupt the visit of the World Bank and IMF officials as their caravans made to the venue of their public meeting smoothly without any trouble. The venue of the public meeting was miles away from D-Chowk at the Constitution Avenue, where the government leaders and officials were meeting IMF and World Bank teams.
However, the officials of the international financial institutions must have gathered a fair impression of the challenges faced by a political government in Pakistan to push through tough economic reforms.
The government’s retreat on some key measures aimed at documenting the economy during talks with the traders held on the eve of the IMF team’s arrival has exposed its vulnerability to the powerful sections of society. The government, which apparently has no threat to its survival from within the parliament where it enjoys majority, seems to have had no other option but to give in at the time when tens of thousands of opposition activists were heading towards the capital to topple it.
One seriously wonders for the fate of the much-needed and much-talked about economic and structural reforms that the present government has been touting since its inception, especially in the coming months when it is likely to face more political pressures from the opposition.
The unfolding political situation is not new in Pakistan, but it seems the present government too is repeating the mistakes of its predecessors.
Successive governments in Pakistan have failed in their terms in power to evolve a political consensus on these reforms before announcing and implementing them. While there is a broad consensus among the major political parties on key structural reforms, they, out of ego, fail to take opposition into confidence about their economic strategy after they themselves come into power.
Such lack of coordination among political parties always obstructs the passage of relevant laws through the parliament and also encourages opposition to toughen its stance on key matters.
From day one, the government and opposition have been locked in a useless spat over the accountability process. The prime minister as well as his key ministers kept accusing their opponents of being corrupt and maintained that they were creating political fuss to avoid accountability, while the opposition blamed government for victimising them in the name of accountability.
Instead of name calling, both should have focused on strengthening the accountability process and fixing the loopholes to make the accountability process more credible and genuine.
These rigid positions took their attentions away from the key issues confronting the country.
Unless both sides move away from their rigid positions and look out for a middle way, the challenges faced by the country on economic, security as well political fronts would stay unaddressed.
The opposition has initially extended its protest for two days to force the prime minister to step down who has refused to do so. The opposition deadline would have expired and they would have announced their future course of action by the time this edition of the newspapers hits newsstands.
However, all indications show that the country might be heading towards another round of political instability. This would definitely take the government’s focus away from its economic agenda, and it would not hesitate to retreat from this agenda, particularly from the points which entail unpopular measures so as to ensure its survival.
Such a situation would definitely be a cause of major concern for the international financial institutions and it would deepen fears of the investors about the political and economic environment in Pakistan.
It would be unfortunate if Pakistan fails to reap maximum benefit from its improved security situation.
It is incumbent upon the political leadership as well as other stakeholders of the country to take stock of the current situation and take steps through consensus to pull the country out of an unending vicious circle of uncertainty and political instability.
The vital economic reforms cannot be implemented and their success cannot be guaranteed until the much-needed political reforms get enforced that should ensure political stability in the country. Political stability is a pre-requisite for economic progress of any country.
It is unfortunate that timely elections have not yet ensured political stability in Pakistan. Political parties without compromising on their right to protest should also show maturity and ensure stability in the country. Otherwise, the country would plunge into an abyss of perpetual uncertainty.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad