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Opinion

July 24, 2018

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The Bilours and the ANP

On May 29, a human rights activist Sardar Charanjit Singh was shot dead by unknown persons in Peshaw...

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Our key post-election crises

When Pakistanis go to cast their votes tomorrow, they will do so with heavier hearts than they needed to. The laments are not all unjustified. Every major political and supposedly non political actor has conspired, by design and by default, to undermine the 2018 elections. A lot has been said about the mistakes that have been made – but the highlights merit repetition.

The military should have played a much stronger role in putting an end to the ridiculous 2014 dharna, and it should have handled the so-called Dawn leaks differently. Nawaz Sharif should have worked harder, he should not have outsourced parts of his job to an unelected daughter, and he should have presented a more credible defence to the Panama case than he did. He failed the millions of Pakistanis that voted for him, and he failed his own contributions to helping Pakistan’s democratic institutions become stronger.

The chief justice has engaged the judiciary in issues that it does not need to be involved in. Judgements can be harsh or soft, but the stature of the institutions responsible for dispensing justice to Pakistanis deserves to be managed without constant appeals for public approval and affection.

The PTI has undermined its credentials as a reform movement because it has become the guardian of a single-minded mission to dress Imran Khan in a black sherwani as he takes oath as prime minister. In time, the PTI’s 2014 dharna will be remembered as one of the most damaging enterprises this country’s politicians undertook against themselves. The consolidation of the dominance of these four actors – the army, Nawaz Sharif, the judiciary, and Imran Khan – at the top of the Pakistani national story is among the more dangerous national security issues the country’s leaders ignore.

The PPP is responsible for its own marginalisation, and so the recent exuberance of its young leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has been rightly welcomed by a wide swathe of opinion. But the marginalisation of other voices has costs that don’t immediately show up on the social and economic ledger. The Pakistani periphery needs oxygen. Neglecting and rejecting the agency of those that claim injury – whether in Karachi, in Balochistan, or in the new districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – will only result in long-term disengagement and disenfranchisement.

The 2018 election was an opportunity for renewal of those parts of the republic and its polity that needed a click of the refresh button. Instead, it has become burdened with a range of questions about fairness and credibility that will weigh down not only the coalition government that is likely to emerge over the next few days and weeks – but also elements of the judiciary, the military and the national media that have knowingly and unknowingly contributed to the burden.

A peaceful and relatively fair and free election on July 25, however, represents a starting point not for a longer lament, but for the hope that the country can extract itself from the multiple crises that it faces. Pakistan has four major crises that need to be tackled urgently. The first is the macroeconomic crisis that basically entails the economy’s inability to generate an adequate amount of foreign currency. The second crisis is the degree to which international confidence in Pakistan leaves the country vulnerable to economic, military and political attacks from its enemies. The third is a severe lack of trust between the elected civilian leaders, the military, the judiciary, and the national media. The fourth, and the most serious long-term crisis, is the twin threat of economic deprivation and political disenfranchisement. These four crises are serious, and they need to be treated with great seriousness. But they are crises that other countries are not dealing with. Pakistanis should be concerned, but not panicked. Panic is death.

To tackle these four crises, most policy analysts and observers will propose substantive measures. This is a common and understandable tendency. But the substance or content of what Pakistan does to tackle these crises is not the most important part of what needs to happen from July 26 onward. It is not what Pakistan does to tackle these crises. It is how it tackles these crises.

Let’s take the crisis of macroeconomic strength. The urgent and immediate solution is to produce an injection of foreign currency. This will come in the form of either debt relief from China or a dollar-denominated injection from a friendly Middle Eastern country, or a substantial (and painful) IMF programme, or the rapid issuance of expensive bonds and sukuks. These are the full range of solutions. The art will not be in generating one or more of these cash injections; the art will be in ensuring that the minister of finance is an effective communicator and consensus builder. The short-term pain is inevitable. If the crisis is perceived to have metastasized whilst it is being addressed with the first short-term step, the solution will be lost from the very get-go.

The minister of finance will need to communicate a full five-year plan for how the short-term cash injection will be backed up by a plan for dramatically improved exports, and/or substantially higher revenues, and/or other creative medium-term measures. The minister of finance will need to communicate effectively with five key stakeholders: the Pakistani people, the executive and parliament, the military and the judiciary, the international community, and most importantly the private sector – both local and international. The most important instrument in this communications effort will be the print and broadcast media, and the minister’s own social media effort.

If the minister is a provocative or divisive political figure, the effort will suffer from the get-go. Equally, however, a technocrat will not have the savvy required to manage what is essentially a political process. A robust (yet contained) parliamentary discussion will be vital to managing the situation. At the end of the day, the macroeconomic crisis will take at least two quarters to subside, and macroeconomic strength will take no less than two years to establish. The incoming government will not be able to do it alone – but it will need to establish an inclusive and consultative process to ensure that the first two quarters do not become crises in and of themselves.

A similar effort will be required to tackle the second crisis. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is one of the most potent instruments available to the Pakistani people, but it has consistently been underutilised. Identifying a 21st century leader to help manage the challenges the international community poses to Pakistan will be important, but ensuring that the key Pakistani stakeholders have confidence in those plans will be even more crucial.

The crisis of institutional distrust – especially between elected civilians and military officials – is a crisis borne of poor and incomplete communication between key stakeholders. The COAS and the prime minister having regular meetings did not solve the problem in 2013, 2014 and 2015. It will not suffice in 2018 or 2019. Pakistan needs formal engagement between cabinet members and key military officials. These engagements can help deter the emergence of irritants and misunderstandings. Pakistan has plenty of people that inflame, irritate and ignite crises. It is desperately in need of those that seek to reduce irritants and misunderstandings. The responsibility for maintaining institutional harmony is a shared one. It must be fulfilled by all institutions.

The fourth and most serious crisis the country faces is the twin threat of economic deprivation and the political disenfranchisement. I will share some ideas for how to tackle that crisis in my welcome piece for the new parliament next week. In the meantime, happy voting! May Allah protect and guide us all and our country on voting day, and ever beyond.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

www.mosharrafzaidi.com

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