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Wednesday August 17, 2022

Tests for PM Shehbaz

April 13, 2022

The ouster of Imran Khan may have created a ripple of excitement among the workers of the PMNL-N but if the party fails to deliver, this euphoria will soon turn into disappointment, prompting people to look for an alternative. The new government faces a myriad of challenges which need meticulous planning and efficient execution of such plans. A few cosmetic steps will not resolve the inveterate problems the country has been facing for decades.

As Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif himself said, the economy is in a terrible shape, and the government needs to make hectic efforts to improve it. With over $100 billion in debt, Pakistan faces deficits on all fronts – fiscal and current account. To tide over this, the country needs over $14 billion a year, which means our debt could hit a whopping $350 or 400 billion mark in the next two decades. Trade deficits are also affecting an economy that is grappling with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic which has not only wreaked havoc with millions of Pakistanis but poor people all over the world.

Amidst this mountain of challenges, it is positive that the government has taken a few steps to extend help and succor to people belonging to low-income groups. The raise in salaries and pensions will go some way in mitigating people’s economic hardships. The increase in the minimum wage is also very encouraging. Further, the decision to plan in consultation with the provincial governments to address the skyrocketing inflation has created a ray of hope that this government will come up with a package to alleviate economic hardships – but such a plan should be made as early as possible because the people want immediate relief so that they can be at some ease during Eid.

But it is not only challenges on the economic front that this government faces; a number of other challenges could also affect the performance of the Shehbaz-led dispensation. The most pressing is the legitimacy of the new government. The PTI has decided to resign en masse. If the decision is strictly followed, then it will leave more than 100 seats vacant in the National Assembly. If the party also decides to resign from the upper house and provincial assemblies then it could plunge the country into a new crisis, scuppering all chances of reforms that the chief of the PML-N hopes for.

Therefore, it is important to politically settle this issue. One of the ways to cool down political temperature lies in avoiding the politics of vindictiveness. Reportedly, the names of a few former ministers, advisers or special assistants have been placed on the Exit Control List, fueling speculations that the new government has a dogged determination to take on PTI supporters and leaders. This could create intense acrimony between the PTI and the incumbent government, forcing Khan loyalists to launch street protests and agitation. Such a situation would create political uncertainty, prompting investors to withhold their investments. The business class has lost billions of rupees over the last few weeks because of the uncertain situation created by the vote of no-confidence and the unpredictability of Imran Khan. If such a condition is allowed to persist, it could deal a severe blow to an economy that needs a modicum of certainty and assurance.

One of the ways to deal with the situation lies in reaching out to the opposition. There must be elements within the PTI that are not comfortable with the recalcitrance of Khan. Such elements should be engaged and a political dialogue be launched aimed at understanding the grievances of the opposition. The government has already announced that it would hold an in-camera briefing with military officials and the former Pakistani envoy to the US regarding the ‘letter’. The government must convince the party of change to attend this in-camera briefing and air their views at that platform instead of resorting to street protests.

There are also speculations that anti-graft cases against the prime minister and his family members would either be quashed or withdrawn. The opposition is propagating that the government will halt all the investigations into the alleged wrongdoings of the Sharif family. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif should come up with a plan to dispel this impression. He should not only appear before the investigating teams but must ensure that his family members do the same. No case should be quashed or inquiry be halted as such an unwise step would strengthen the anti-corruption narrative of the PTI.

In Pakistan, the government of one party in Islamabad hardly tolerates a rival government in other provinces, or in Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. In the past, a change of government in the federal capital also paved the way for change in the provinces, GB and AJK, fueling political tensions. It is clear that the PTI enjoys majority in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, GB and AJK. The government of Nawaz Sharif made a prudent decision in 2013 by accepting the mandate of the PTI in KP. Despite the insistence of PML-N allies in the province, the then prime minister did not make any move to dislodge the PTI-led government. Some PML-N allies and leaders might advise Shehbaz Sharif to weaken the PTI government in KP. Such a move will create tensions between Peshawar and Islamabad. So, it is wise for the PDM government to not only allow the PTI to work in KP but also avoid disturbing the status quo in AJK and GB.

The PTI has been propagating that the opposition parties are not political organisations but a band of four families that want to dominate Pakistan’s politics. They assert that the families of Nawaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Wali Khan do not want their workers to claim political space. They accuse the four families of grabbing all important posts in their parties. The PDM has already committed a mistake by allocating two key posts of the country to the Sharifs. Ideally, a PML-N worker other than Hamza should have taken over as CM Punjab. Such a decision will harm the PML-N politically. If the other three parties also stuff the federal cabinet and government positions with relatives of party leaders, then the PTI could seize this opportunity to castigate dynastic politics, asserting it was right in declaring these parties as family fiefdoms. Therefore, it is important for the PDM to let their party workers instead of relatives of party heads take ministries and government positions.

Shehbaz may be known as a good administrator but in the past he was accused of preferring central Punjab, particularly Lahore, to other parts of the province. This time the PML-N government in Punjab should not only help create a province for the Saraiki people but should also allocate a decent budget for one of the most underdeveloped areas of the country. The incumbent prime minister was in the past also accused of adopting a dictatorial attitude by running the government through deputy commissioners.

Both the PPP and PML-N ignored the devolution of powers at the local bodies levels. Running the affairs of the state like this reeks of a colonial mentality. Failing to devolve powers to local councils flies in the face of tall claims of democracy and democratic traditions. Therefore, it is important that the two parties immediately make efforts to carry out real devolution, ensure local bodies polls and let elected representatives solve the basic problems of the people instead of relying on bureaucrats and unelected officials.

Email: egalitarianism444@gmail.com

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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