Thursday April 18, 2024

Hollow promises?

To date, little is known about where money is going to come from to afford promised relief

By Farhan Bokhari
January 31, 2024
Activists of Pakistan Peoples Party performing a traditional dance before arriving PPP leader Asifa Bhutto Zardari during an election campaign rally at Liyari area in the Provincial Capital. — Online/File
Activists of Pakistan Peoples Party performing a traditional dance before arriving PPP leader Asifa Bhutto Zardari during an election campaign rally at Liyari area in the Provincial Capital. — Online/File

Ahead of Pakistan’s elections next Thursday, the two main political rivals – the PPP and the PML-N – will have closed their campaigns offering hollow promises with little substance.

Offering pay-offs to the people of Pakistan ranging from free electricity for the poor to jobs and other benefits, has spearheaded their messages. In these messages, a visible disconnect was sharply evident between the offers versus Pakistan’s harsh realities.

To date, little is known about where the money is going to come from to afford the promised relief. With Pakistan’s economy in a near dire state, providing large-scale benefits without a tough campaign in tandem to raise large-scale revenue, remains heavily in doubt.

And with Pakistan certain to enter another IMF loan programme this spring after the present arrangement concludes, it effectively promises to keep Pakistan’s hands well tied together. With Pakistan’s economic growth almost flat, there are few prospects for an upturn any time soon.

Meanwhile, the next IMF programme is already looking set to enforce tough new conditions upon Pakistan, forcing an incoming government to adopt harsher belt-tightening steps on top of austerity measures over the past several months. In brief, Pakistan’s economic future, irrespective of the political promises, appears practically dismal for its mainstream population.

Besides, the political class now rushing to enter the highest political offices has a terrible history of having done little in the past to turn the corner for the better. A journey towards reforming Pakistan’s economy has been repeatedly spelled out in the past. And yet, that repeated exercise has marked little more than lip service under successive regimes.

To date, a succession of elected parliaments at the federal and provincial levels have done little to tighten the screws on a large community of de-facto ‘fat cows’ with deep influence across Pakistan’s power corridors. To make matters worse, added space such as a series of amnesties for black marketers and tax evaders has repeatedly allowed Pakistan’s white-collared criminals to tighten their grip on the laws of the land.

Going forward, the arrival of any government led by either of the two mainstream parties will be meaningless unless they make tangible progress in two vital areas.

First, Pakistan’s future will not be different from its past unless a vigorous campaign is launched to clamp down hard on tax evasion. The fruit of that exercise will only be meaningful if it leads to significantly lifting the number of taxpayers well above the paltry below two per cent of the population who are already in the official tax net.

This would require the next government to oversee the targeting of influential segments of society, irrespective of their clout. In the past, Pakistan has witnessed scandals such as the well-known ‘sugar scandal’ under the watch of former prime minister Imran Khan. But the powerful sugar barons have gone on to carve out larger political space for themselves, while the former prime minister is in jail and his PTI is battling to survive.

Second, any new reform will remain meaningless unless backed by a vigorous push to forcefully stamp out wasteful expenditure. Pakistan’s hugely bloated public sector has become a massive liability to a nation of more than 240 million people, all at the cost of national welfare. Across this segment, it is hard to find even a single government-owned company that is running truly in profit.

And the layer upon layer of so-called government institutions, including some that are effectively half dysfunctional, has only saddled Pakistan’s economic outlook with the worst set of liabilities in its history. Pakistan can just not afford to carry on business as usual while its mainstream population remains pressed hugely under inflation running at almost 40 per cent. In the closing days of the election campaign before next Thursday’s elections, it is pertinent to ask if the two parties leading the charge have been more than half honest in their campaigns.

The promise of a more prosperous future is simply not likely to happen unless the harsh realities facing Pakistan are clearly spelled out. To the people of Pakistan, the recent political messages have been hollow, to say the least.

Tragically, the riddle surrounding the future has been complicated by a fundamental misfortune. The political class and the parties now set to lead a new government are entities that have been well tried and tested more than just once before. And their past performance has little to show by way of offering hope for the future of Pakistan.

And yet, without radical changes to lead Pakistan towards a qualitatively new future based on unprecedented reforms, the country’s future outlook will continue to just slip southwards. As mainstream Pakistanis prepare to vote next Thursday, it is essential to unleash a vital question: can Pakistan afford to take a road to its challenging future that just mimics its unfortunate past?

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on political and economic affairs. He can be reached at: