Okey, We Bought Imran Khan’s Dream last July but What’s Next!

By Syed Sharfuddin

Last July I was packing my bags and tidying up my papers to fly to Pakistan. The assignment was to accompany the Commonwealth Observer Group for the 2018 General Election as an independent Political Consultant. While in Pakistan I observed that the dream PTI leader Imran Khan sold to the public for a Naya Pakistan had made deep impact on the mindset and imagination of the middle class, especially women and young persons and those entering the job market. PTI was winning and the electoral campaign said so clearly. Imran Khan had his critics too, most of whom belonged to powerful feudal dynastic families in Sindh and Punjab. They feared for the loss of their own power and privileges in the political Tsunami that was overtaking the length and breadth of the country. The second and third tier of rival politicians who were considered electable in their constituencies, jumped ship and joined PTI. Some of them even got tickets to contest election from PTI platform and some who were not that lucky stood as independents.

I also noticed that the military, which was not interested in manipulating the elections or changing the results of the ballot on the night of the count, and the judiciary which found itself unwillingly caught between the devil and the deep sea with high profiled corruption cases, were both covertly pleased that finally Pakistan was going to take a breath of fresh air with the victory of PTI. The opposition’s allegations of military rigging the election under the pretext of providing security cover were eventually proved false.

The road to PTI victory was not smooth. Coming very lose to election date, and often incomplete, judicial verdicts on the corruption cases of the outgoing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family members and a covert externally-funded global cyber campaign to link the Pakistan military with PTI’s campaign had soured the electoral atmosphere and divided the media which fuelled controversies and conspiracy theories in the traditional fashion of singing the tune of whoever gave them political advertisements and stuffed their pockets, euphemistically called lifafas. Pakistani social media also contributed to this senseless blitz without realising the damage they were doing to the reputation of the country. In this unfortunate discourse Imran Khan unwittingly painted Pakistan as a corrupt and misgoverned country. In the first few months of his Prime Ministership he continued to harp on this narrative in his meetings with foreign dignitaries and overseas investors, little realising that the image that went out to them was of a country they should not trust and stay away from by a barge pole.

Not only the campaign was bitter and conveyed the impression of absence of level playing field, in the night of the poll count the disappointing performance of the results management system which was jointly built by NADRA and ECP, left a bad taste in the mouth regarding Pakistani politicians who remained true to the reputation of not conceding their electoral defeat gracefully.

Following the elections, PTI emerged as the largest party in the National Assembly but it could not secure outright majority in the House, which was another proof that the elections were not rigged. The talk of selected Prime Minister therefore appears both irresponsible and undemocratic indicating lack of faith in the political process which is the result of a parliamentary consensus by politicians themselves. In the provinces, PTI won Punjab and KPK but needed coalition partners in Sindh and Baluchistan to form majority governments.

Since coming to power last year, the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has discovered that governing a country like Pakistan is no mean task. It has also learnt the importance of doing thorough homework before making any political promises because it is only after being in government that a leader comes to appreciate the true state of affairs and the pressures that decide the common denominator in taking national decisions. A perfect example of this is the electoral promise of PTI that it will not go to the IMF for emergency financing, or the claim that the looted money which was illegally sent abroad by corrupt politicians will be repatriated to Pakistan with the help of friendly countries and the international anti-money laundering bodies.

In the last 12 months in which two and a half budgets were given by the government, including the one just passed in the National Assembly, revenue collection has been less than forecasted, inflation is rampant and foreign debt is higher than ever in the history of the country. Despite large injections of cash Dollars amounting to 9 billion, 3 billion each from Saudi Arabia, China and the UAE, the foreign exchange reserves of the country have not been able to prevent the steep fall of the Pakistani Rupee vis-a-vis the US Dollar. The recently signed IMF agreement has come with tough conditionalities calling for radical restructuring of the economy, an overhaul of the revenue collecting apparatus, expansion of income-tax base and putting an end to government subsidies on utilities and food items designed to be poor friendly. The restructuring is taking a toll on the ordinary public, as well as the business sector which has been hit hard by low investments, high import tariffs and a bearish stock market behaviour. Manufacturing has suffered due to high costs of production and utilities, rising interest rates, cuts on export credits, low export yields and disappointing results in the exploration of oil and gas reserves in the country’s potentially promising subterranin fields. Many from the middle class and the poor who expected a quick change in their circumstances are disenchanted and think they made a mistake voting for PTI. The opposition is also not quiet. It keeps flogging the government for every word they say and every bill they bring to parliament to debate and enact.

In this situation, the  military has found a firm place for itself in the major decision-making institutions of the country by becoming members of the country’s key economic bodies, the National Development Council and Economic Advisory Committee. The military is also represented or has visible presence in the National Security Council, National Counter Terrorism Authority, National Disaster Management Authority, Civil Aviation Authority and Airport Security Force which is quite understandable given the security and defence challenges Pakistan faces internally, as well as on its external borders. But while their representation in civilian and political institutions may be good-intentioned and tactically helpful, in the broader context of democratic governance it is an overkill. The reason is because the military enjoys the status of a neutral, non-partisan and credible institution which could act like an A&E call to 911 when needed by civilian government. The military should always stay invisible in the background as a final deterrent to caution inept politicians, and in times of crisis call on them to put things right or else face a mid-term election. The military’s formal institutional presence in the political decision making forums of the country undermines their role as a neutral arbiter and as an insurance policy against disaster.

A number of Pakistanis think that the military is actually running the country from the shoulder of Imran Khan who is Prime Minister only in name. They point to the present harmony in the civil-political relations not as a sign of stability but as the capitulation of civilian authority by the military. These people draw their inspiration from liberal civil society, anti-military and anti-Islam lobbies and friends of India and the Sharifs, some at home (muted) and many overseas (vocal). Irrespective of their intentions, their argument holds ground to the extent that while the military is excellent as a rescuer in a disaster situation, it is unhelpful in governing the country by proxy and taking decisions which dominate, if not bypass, national and provincial political processes in a federation. The hybrid semi democratic rules of Generals Ayub, Zia and Musharraf are seen by many as democracy’s dark periods, each of which kicked Pakistan back into the past instead of leading it to the future.

In many ways Pakistan is today re-living the political history of Bangladesh in the years 2006-2008 during which an extended interim government, covertly supported by the Bangladesh military, cleaned up the mess left by the government of outgoing Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia and paved the way for Awami League to win the December 2008 election and form a government in January 2009. The example of Bangladesh may not be perfect because in Pakistan the interim government lasted only over 2 months and not 2 years. It took office on 1 June 2018 and resigned on 18 August 2018 when Imran Khan was sworn in as Prime Minister. But the fact remains that in the present Pakistan government, which is the third democratic civilian government since General Musharraf gave up power, a press release from DG ISPR carries more weight than a press release from the Ministry of Information or the Prime Minister’s Office. There is no country in South Asia other than Pakistan where the military leadership is given more space in the country’s electronic and print media for news, photos and statements. Even foreign envoys and visiting overseas dignitaries find it necessary to pay a courtesy call on the COAS after calling on the PM or FM. The powerful religious lobby ‘bows’ to no one except the military. DG ISPR’s Twitter account which comments on developments ranging from sports events to development projects, which are purely civilian matters, is run in parallel with the Tweets of some of the more energetic and media-savvy Ministers of the present Cabinet whose job is to keep PTI in the public eye. At least in Bangladesh, after the initial hiccups, the government of Sheikh Hasina took full control of the political process from the military and cleaned up corruption and graft using the parliament and judicial institutions, leading to political stability, investor confidence, rapid economic growth and elimination of extremist voices. Could Pakistan do the same using its elected political capital with precision and come out clean from the muddy waters?

But Pakistan is not Bangladesh. It has its own security threats, political processes and developmental paradigm. It has its friends and its enemies. In a nutshell, Pakistan is personified by its national cricket team which is capable of touching the zenith of success in one match and in another match falling to the ground like a busted missile which is going nowhere. Interestingly, this unpredictability gives Pakistan a unique advantage. Neither its public nor the international players who are interested in this country can completely write off the present government, or the country for that matter, nor can they embrace it fully until the results are final.

It is fair to say that having completed one year out of the mandated five years in its electoral term, it is too soon to judge any government’s performance, let alone that of the PTI government in Pakistan. Therefore the dreamers will have to go on dreaming for at least another couple of years to see whether the austerity measure and resulting economic reforms are working for the country, and whether a Naya Pakistan is finally coming to take shape. While the critics of PTI may continue to boo the government for its shortfalls or gaffes, and while the supporters of this government may continue to applaud every step it takes for better or worse, Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government must be given space and time to do the right things this country needs. After all, Pakistan is only 72 years old in the journey of a thousand years.

7 July 2019.

Background Note:
1. On 28 July 2017, the Pakistan Supreme Court while ruling on the petitions of PTI Chairman Imran Khan, MNA Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and other political leaders, disqualified ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from politics and directed NAB to file three references — Avenfield Properties, Al-Azizia and Flagship Investment — against Nawaz Sharif and other members of his family in the NAB accountability court. 2. On 6 July 2018, an Accountability court of Judge Mohammad Bashir convicted ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Avenfield Properties reference and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. 3. On 24 December 2018 another Accountability court of Judge Mohammad Arshad Malik convicted Nawaz Sharif in the Al-Azizia reference and awarded him 7 years’ imprisonment, besides imposing fines of Rs1.5 billion and $25 million on the former PML-N leader. 4. In January 2019 the Ex PM’s  legal team filed an appeal, as well as a petition against the decision in the Al Azizia steel mills case. 5. In July 2019 the family of PML(N) which includes the top leadership of the party alleged that the Accountability Court’s Judge Arshad Malik was blackmailed to give a verdict against the ex-Prime Minister under duress. They produced a video clip and an audio recording in support of this allegation. The allegations were refuted by Judge Arshad Malik as false, and based on doctored evidence.

Mr Syed Sharfuddin is a political analyst and a former Pakistani diplomat. He was Special Adviser in the Political Affairs of Commonwealth Secretariat in London from 2000 to 2006, and CEO of Muslim Aid UK from 2010 to 2014.