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Monday May 27, 2024

A treacherous outlook?

By Farhan Bokhari
December 29, 2021

Pakistan’s countdown to the next elections in 2023 is set to gather speed in the year ahead, overshadowed by the country’s increasingly turbulent economy and equally uncertain politics.

The close of 2021 with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) recently losing large-scale ground across the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, has finally exposed the ruling party’s fast eroding political standing. The PTI’s failure to secure even a decent minority in KP’s municipal polls has powerfully thrown up a clear writing on the wall.

Khan’s insistence on proverbially shoving the PTI’s losing political fortunes under the carpet for being no more than a strategy failure has only deepened the prevailing uncertainty. In brief, what lies ahead is nothing short of a treacherous outlook of the kind seldom witnessed before in Pakistan’s history.

At one end of Pakistan’s strategic spectrum lies the increasingly complex and sliding outlook for the economy, notwithstanding the ‘sab acha’ (all is well) mantra repeatedly put out by official quarters. In sharp contrast to the government’s spin putting focus on the country’s economic malaise for being largely caused by exogenous factors notably global commodity prices fueling out of control inflation in Pakistan, the reality is vastly different.

A continuing failure under Khan’s tenure to halt a sliding system of governance across Pakistan must equally be kept in focus. This is evident no more than across Punjab – Pakistan’s most populated province and home to about 60 percent of its population. The continuing failure in Punjab to revamp critical areas ranging from the agricultural sector to daily price controls has only spelt disaster for mid to low income households.

And the sharply contrasting story of economic policy failure is evident no more than within the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Till recently, trends like the uncurbed import of high end completely built up or CBU luxury vehicles were shown off as a sign of a strengthening economy. In spite of a soaring international trade deficit and a current account deficit, Islamabad’s power corridors remained abuzz with claims of coming prosperity.

And while moderate- to low-income Pakistani households suffered across the board, the voices of people on the streets were kept practically muted. Though the loan programme from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has caused many a pitfall for Pakistan’s present and future outlook, the Washington-based lender may have done a rare good by reportedly raising pressure on Islamabad to begin curbing unnecessary imports.

Yet, the road ahead is likely to be far from beneficial for Pakistan’s future. Amid a raft of further belt-tightening measures expected in a new ‘mini budget’ to fill a reportedly staggering gap of about Rs600 billion, a period of inevitable pain for the broad mainstream is set to be the country’s sorry fate.

On the other end of Pakistan’s strategic spectrum lies the inevitable rise of the political temperature in the coming year, as a coalition of opposition parties prepare to launch a protest movement with unpredictable consequences. For the moment, Khan can draw comfort from more than simple disarray among the ranks of the opposition though that’s hardly relevant for the future of Pakistan. In a nutshell, that’s almost like drawing a comparison between two evils to choose the lesser one.

As the internal outlook remains on a knife edge, the future of Pakistan’s foreign relations is likely to bring little comfort. Just months after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan after the US endured an effective defeat there following Washington’s most expensive war in its history, the Central Asian country is in danger of becoming a disaster right on Pakistan’s door steps.

Lately though, some comfort has come from a Pakistan backed international initiative to at least unpack inflows of some humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. But the Taliban will likely remain more than just half a pariah unless they come up to global expectations, notably on matters like allowing more space for women and Afghan minorities in areas ranging from education to representation in political and public institutions. And the Taliban for now seem in no mood to swiftly change track for earning that critical recognition.

Together, Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy related trends mark the journey through a treacherous road ahead, seldom witnessed before in Islamabad’s history.

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