Money Matters

As economy takes a backseat

Money Matters
By Zeeshan Haider
Mon, 03, 21

The defeat of Finance Minister Abdul Hafiz Sheikh in the senate elections at the hands of joint opposition candidate and former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has triggered a debate about the fate of Mr. Shaikh.

The defeat of Finance Minister Abdul Hafiz Sheikh in the senate elections at the hands of joint opposition candidate and former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has triggered a debate about the fate of Mr. Shaikh.

It is not the first time for Mr. Sheikh to contest for a senate seat as he has been elected to the parliament’s upper house thrice in the past.

Interestingly, he had served finance minister in the government of Mr. Gilani and had contested for the senate berth under his tutelage too.

But the latest one could safely be touted as the most critical contest of his political career so far.

At least 48 senate seats were up in grabs in the election held on March 3 but the Islamabad seat where Gilani was facing off his and then Imran Khan’s finance minister was the most hotly contested battle as it was hyped as a vote of trust in Mr Khan’s government.

Opposition stalwarts waged a concerted campaign against the candidacy of Mr Sheikh with PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto calling the finance minister as the joint candidate of “PTI-IMF”.

PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz spokesman Mohammad Zubair in his media talks maintained that Mr. Sheikh has no stakes in Pakistan and he would leave the country to take up his previous jobs with the IMF or the World Bank once his ministerial job ended here.

As happens in politics everywhere in the world that it is petty politics that take precedence over principles otherwise it were both PPP and PML-N which concluded agreements with the IMF in their tenures to shore up country’s finances.

Amidst such high drama, Mr. Shaikh lost contest to Mr Gilani by five votes and now debate has raged that whether Mr Shaikh would continue as finance minister.

Legally speaking, Mr. Shaikh, appointed as finance minister in January, could continue on his job until early July as an unelected minister can keep portfolio for six months.

Analysts doubt that the government would take the risk of removing Mr Shaikh at a time when it has just concluded an important staff-level agreement with IMF to resume the $6 billion program and to overcome the “challenges created by the (Covid-19) pandemic…”.

“For the time being, he will continue as finance minister and later he may be reverted to his previous position of Special Assistant of the Prime Minister on Finance,” renowned economic expert Shahid Hasan Siddiqui said.

Some reports suggest that once the current political dust settles down, the government may again try to induct Mr Shaikh in the senate by getting one of its senators to resign to pave the way for finance minister to fill in.

But the main question is whether there is any hope for a light at the end of the tunnel? Is there any chance of end of this high political drama anytime soon?

The defeat of Mr Shaikh is the first major blow for the government of Prime Minister of Imran since its inception two years and a half ago with the full support of all powers that be. Does he still enjoy the unwavering support from inside his political base and from the powers that would give him the strength to push back the opposition?

If the tumultuous political history of Pakistan is any guide than a political turmoil of such scale has never rolled back to normalcy.

In such a chaotic situation, it has been unlikely for a government to concentrate on critical national issues like economy and has always tended to keep fire-fighting to stay in power.

At a time when a big political drama is unfolding, it is unrealistic to expect government to undertake the much-delayed, much-needed and politically risky structural reforms pushed by the IMF.

The deeply-entrenched government and opposition seem unwilling to come to the negotiating table to carve out a political discourse to patch up their differences and evolve a consensus on national issues.

The election of chairman senate and his deputy is due later this month. With opposition having majority in the senate and if they succeed in getting their candidate elected to become chairman senate through a secret ballot, then polarization is likely to exacerbate.

The opposition has also hinted at their plans to turn Punjab – politically most important province of the country – into next battleground meaning more political dramas are going to be played in the coming months.

Moreover, the opposition PDM alliance has also announced its “long march” towards Islamabad on March 26 that could be turned into a sit-in.

And it is not just deepening tension between the government and opposition that is worrisome but now there is also signs of chasm between government and other state institutions.

Prime Minister has delivered a hard-hitting address to the nation targeting the election commission over its “failure” to prevent corrupt practices in the senate election. The address drew strongly worded rebuke from the election commission urging the government to stop mud-slinging at it.

All this shows that a big political storm is gathering pace and it might get worse if all stakeholders did not step back and let constitution and law to take its due course.

One can only hope that better sense prevails on all sides and they try to calm down the situation.

But if they fail, it is only the common man who will be worst hit by this confrontation as happened in the past.

Pakistan has been consistently between witnessing such crises throughout its history and it is high time for its ruling elite stop this endless bickering and let the constitution and law to reign supreme.

Pakistani leaders should learn a lesson from their counterparts in Bangladesh who after decades of confrontation have eventually learnt to live under a genuine constitutional and democratic set-up which has minimized chances of political instability and paved the way for the economic progress of the country which is all poised to join league of developed nations in the coming decades if it stayed on its current course.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad