A question of priorities

March 12, 2023

Political credibility provides a stable policy environment and long-term certainty

A question of priorities


lmost a year ago, I contributed to these pages in anticipation of the motion of no confidence against then prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf-led federal government. Short of an actual hope and mostly as a form of personal catharsis, I advised against the motion of no confidence that was certain to dislodge the then government. I argued that there was an opportunity to establish the political convention of allowing an elected government to complete its tenure and refraining from engaging in political intrigue whenever one could. I also reasoned that the removal from power would provide the PTI government an opportunity to absolve itself of any responsibility for the deteriorating economic conditions of the country. As I write these words, a year later, I find little joy in being proven right.

The succeeding Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government inherited a faltering economy and through a combination of exogenous shocks and indecisiveness turned it into a near economic meltdown. How was I so certain of the manner in which things were going to unfold? For one, you can always predict that things are going to get worse in Pakistan and be likely to be proven correct. However, the real answer is the concept of political credibility.

Political scientists define political credibility as the “predictability of the institutional rules of the game” and the certainty that political actors would comply with these rules. Political credibility, defined in this manner, provides a stable policy environment and long-term political certainty that allow external actors to make durable commitments to the state in the form of economic and social investment and political engagement. What is apparent to us as a mix of crises of international political isolation coupled with a spectre of economic meltdown is in fact a direct result of the loss of political credibility, not so much for the current government but for the state of Pakistan.

We had the opportunity a year ago to establish some political credibility by allowing the PTI-led government to continue. Not for the first time, we squandered it. Now, the nation is paying the price in its economic struggles while the PDM has paid the price in diminishing popularity.

There is another question facing the political class: whether to hold general elections or to continue the current uncertain regime. The Supreme Court has already decided that elections should be held in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa within 90 days. However, it has also allowed the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to seek more time if needed to make the arrangements. Since the PTI has repeatedly questioned the neutrality of the ECP, a delay in elections in these two provinces would be described by it as evidence of bias.

The ECP has pointed out the formidable, almost forbidding, economic cost of holding the general elections. It has projected that holding general elections would peg back the already shrinking government exchequer by another Rs 47 billion. The issue of economic cost has been repeated by PDM politicians and political observers as an argument against the elections. While the anxiety around allocating sizable resources to anything avoidable at this time of economic stress is understandable, avoiding elections in two provinces now and holding general elections towards the end of the year would hardly reduce the costs. The argument only makes sense if we are to delay all elections until there is an economic recovery. In that case, however, we would cease to be living under a democratic system.

For various reasons, most importantly as a first step for restoring political credibility, instead of taking the undemocratic and unconstitutional route of avoiding elections in totality, or even meeting the constitutional minimum of holding elections for two provincial assemblies within the timeframe stipulated by the Supreme Court, it would be advisable to hold general elections for all the provincial assemblies and the National Assembly.

If the ECP complies with the Supreme Court’s direction and organises elections in only the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with the current political environment and the lack of trust between the PDM and PTI leadership, the results of such elections would create further controversy. This would deepen partisan division, prolonging political uncertainty and worsening the political credibility crisis.

Only a government with a credible claim to popular representation and with a measure of confidence in its longevity can restore political credibility in Pakistan. Such political credibility can only be restored by a government that is elected for a period of time and by an opposition that agrees to play by the rules of the game. We have seen in examples around the world that establishing such political credibility is the first essential step towards an economic turnaround.

In Pakistan, we often talk with a mixed sentiment of shame and envy about the economic miracle of the so-called Asian Tigers in the 1990s, and about the more relatable examples of the economic growth of India and Bangladesh during the past decade or two. But the one thing we do not engage in is to try and fathom the underlying reasons for why these states went the way they did. In all these states, the governments had the ability to act with confidence, and those that interacted with these governments, whether foreign investors and diplomats or its own citizens, understood that these governments enjoyed credibility and the ability to follow through on their promises. For intellectual honesty, it is also pertinent to note that all these states also developed various degrees of autocratic tendencies and state centralisation. Whether such attitudes are essential to establishing political credibility is a discussion for another occasion.

Holding general elections will also serve the political interests of the parties comprising the PDM. For one thing, it makes the government magnanimous and one that is unattached to power, position and ministries. Further, an economic miracle of any sort under the current uncertainty is improbable – the more the government sticks to power, the greater it burdens itself with the responsibility of worsening economic conditions.

Lastly, although I advocate for restoring credibility through elections, I should also note that elections are only the first step towards enhancing confidence in our system. The more important aspect of this process is for political forces to agree to abide by the rules of the game. Short of that, even a post-election government and any that follow will lack any credibility.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Peshawar. He can be reached at aameraza@gmail.com

A question of priorities