Thursday February 22, 2024

A country in mayhem

February 12, 2023

Mayhem describes what Pakistan is facing on so many fronts. There is not even a single respite in sight. Take the economy, the worst mayhem in which decision-makers, elected and otherwise, have brought the country here but remain clueless on how to even think of the right solutions, let alone know how to implement those solutions. The people are bearing the brunt as always, except this time there is an unusual sense of foreboding, fear and flight.

Even though citizen prosperity was never the end goal of the economic (mis)management for over seven (7) decades, suddenly every economic woe, details of every unsuccessful move to stop economic haemorrhage, every failed attempt to woo the IMF are dished out publicly in a disastrous communications strategy by the government. The results of this strategy, if it can even be called one, are apparent: more doom and gloom is added to the existing economic vulnerability. It is hard to imagine any government that would ever use an outreach strategy that puts on daily display the slow implosion of its own credibility and competence.

One does not require kinesics or the science of interpreting body language to interpret the stressed faces, hunched shoulders and anxious whispers of government ministers to decipher the mood in the leadership. Gone are the upbeat arguments on averting economic crisis with experience, yet there is still misplaced focus on enlarging the federal cabinet.

With 34 federal ministers and seven ministers of state, the official size of the federal cabinet remains 41 which constitutionally cannot exceed 11 per cent of the total membership of parliament. However, the prime minister has chosen to appoint a similar number of special assistants, currently between 35 and 42 (the National Assembly website shows a list of 35 and is apparently not updated to reflect recent changes adding the seven new reportedly notified on February 8 while the Cabinet Division lists 40 SAPMs). The ballooning numbers of SAPMs is certainly not the right optics when plans on austerity measures are shared daily with the public.

There is no comfort to be had from the political situation either. We have an elected majority party in the National Assembly which decided to resign en masse disrespecting the choice of voters who returned them for their representation for five (5) years instead of playing the role of a constructive opposition after losing PM’s vote of no-confidence. Their ‘maturity’ in refusing to play ball after one loss was already clear but it is a gift that keeps on giving. It is hard to keep track of the party’s ‘stance of the day.’ From forceful resigning to daily complaints of non-acceptance of resignations and now to contesting the de-seating of MNAs whose resignations were accepted, one can expect absolutely any view of the day from the party.

The political party in question has also taken the management principle of ‘unity of command’ to a whole new level. Not that anyone labours under the illusion of any political party to be internally democratic; the party leader at the top is the one who enjoys mass appeal, is the key vote getter and therefore he, and rarely a she, calls all the shots. But how to describe a party leader who decides to solely contest a majority of the seats, first vacated on his orders, just to strut across personal popularity to the heights of me, myself and I and -- leaving in shambles any notion of democratic choice? This is done despite maintaining the bizarre position of not returning to the assembly, thereby demeaning the entire process of election and the sanctity of voter choice and representation. The time and effort of activating state machinery, the ECP and election staff and the massive cost of holding by-elections is nothing but to be offered as a sacrifice at the altar of egomania of one individual.

Of course, Mr Imran Khan can only retain one out of eight seats constitutionally, a decision that he has to take soon before, lo and behold, the ECP can issue the schedule for by-election on those seats again. The constitution places a bar against dual membership of any citizen in all assemblies, national or provincial. However, in the same Article 223(2), no bar is placed against being a candidate in two or more constituencies at the same time, a freedom that a leader of Mr Khan’s stature has clearly misused at the expense of taxpayers. The article requires that once elected on more than one seat, a candidate has to choose within 30 days after the declaration of the result for the last such seat, to retain one seat and to resign from all others. Since the constitution has to respond to emerging circumstances and situations as a living document, it is important to restrict this freedom to contest from multiple constituencies in the future to maybe only two.

This brings us to another burning question: the absurdity of holding by-election on vacated National Assembly seats now. Even though the Election Commission is bound by the constitution to hold by-elections on any seats that fall vacant 120 day before the expiry of the term of that assembly and it has announced schedule of polls in some of these constituencies accordingly, it appears to be a futile exercise not only in the current political atmosphere but also one that Pakistan can seriously ill afford in terms of financial and security situation of the country. Barring the PTI’s political somersaults on resign or re-join the National Assembly, serious soul-searching is needed on whether the period of holding by-elections in Pakistan should be changed from current 120 days before expiry of the term of an assembly to six (6) months before the expiry of assemblies’ terms? Developing an immediate political consensus on this question is necessary before adding to the current mayhem in the country.

Another critical question is the dissolution of the provincial assemblies of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the constitutional requirement of electing new assemblies within 90 days of dissolution. Viewed by the PTI as its masterstroke to force early elections, it is nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for the country. While the constitution is silent on whether or not simultaneous or staggered general elections should be held in the country, there are serious matters that need to be taken into consideration such as fairness of elections both if polls are held in Punjab and KP without installing a caretaker government in centre or with politically elected governments in these two provinces when National Assembly elections are held later.

Since these issues are constitutional in nature and amending the constitution in the current political climate is not possible, the only other alternative again is through developing a political consensus. The continuing inability of the political parties to come together to have a decent conversation on these key issues, or the insistence of one party to not engage in any dialogue with other parties, is adding to the complexity of the crises.

The writer is an analyst working in the field of politics, democratic governance, legislative development and rule of law.