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July 02, 2023 10:31 pm | Updated July 03, 2023 11:39 am IST
A boy rides past a paramilitary check post, that was set afire by the supporters of Imran Khan, during a protest against his arrest, in Karachi, Pakistan on May 9. | Photo Credit: REUTERS
The story so far: Over the last 15 months, Pakistan faced a myriad of challenges, including confrontations between the government and the opposition, disagreements between the Parliament and the judiciary, instability in Punjab, clashes between the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and the Establishment (Pakistan army), an economic meltdown, and the devastating impact of the 2022 floods. Even by Pakistan’s standards, the situation was tumultuous, with fears of a debt default and a military takeover looming on the horizon. However, a few developments in June across political, military and economic sectors suggest a semblance of normalcy returning to Pakistan.
During the last week of June, the Parliament passed the Elections (Amendment) Act 2023, providing the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) the sole responsibility of deciding when to conduct elections. Now the ECP decides the next election date, instead of the President as was previously the case. In March 2023, the President, who was appointed by former Pakistan Prime Minister and PTI chief Imran Khan, announced the election date for the Punjab provincial assembly without consulting the Parliament. The Supreme Court supported this decision, which created a conflict between the court and the Parliament, leading to political instability. The situation played right into Mr. Khan’s hands.
However, the new legislation would inevitably result in the ECP announcing the election dates for the national and provincial assemblies at a later date during 2023. This aligns with the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition. A delayed election would suit the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), something that Mr. Khan was totally opposed to.
The new legislation also means that self-exiled former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif can return and contest the forthcoming elections. A primary reason for PTI to insist on early elections and the PML-N to refuse it, is related to this reason. Mr. Khan believed that the existing situation favoured him in Punjab. But if Mr. Sharif is to return, and the elections get delayed, then the Sharifs would hold an edge in Punjab (and thereby also at the national level). It is now looking like an advantage for the PML-N.
After the violence on May 9, where following the arrest of Mr. Khan on charges of corruption, protests by his supporters and party members quickly turned into out-of-control riots, the Establishment had come down heavily on Mr. Khan and the PTI. The June 26 address by the Inter-Services Public Relations Director General (DG-ISPR), wherein he called the May 9 incident as a ‘black chapter of Pakistan’s history’, was a part of the Establishment’s counter-attack, including taking action against those who failed to act on May 9.
Since the violence, the Establishment has taken direct action besides covert pressure. The formation of military courts to punish the perpetrators of the May 9 incident has been one part of the story. The other part is the systematic covert targeting of the PTI; leaders who were a part of Imran Khan’s close circuit and his cabinet ended up getting arrested repeatedly during May, ultimately yielding to the pressure from the Establishment. From Parvez Khattak to Shireen Mazari, many leaders who were close to Mr. Khan and formed the backbone of the PTI left the party. Jahangir Tareen, once a close aide of Mr. Khan, has even formed a new party — the Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP). Thus, the Establishment successfully built a new narrative that the perpetrators behind the May 9 violence were the worst enemies of Pakistan.
Mr. Khan is now isolated and the PTI is weak with a series of desertions. Pakistan is less likely to witness the confrontational politics that Mr. Khan led during the last year. Many in Pakistan consider that it is game over for him, at least for the forthcoming elections.
When June began, Pakistan was facing an economic meltdown and a threat of default, facing severe inflation and a foreign reserve that could sustain only for a few more months. Despite multiple review meetings with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), there was no sign of a deal. An earlier IMF programme under the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) was to end by June 30.
Despite numerous political bravados and expectations of “friendly countries” helping Pakistan to meet the economic crisis, Pakistan had to go back to the IMF with new estimates. On June 24, Ishaq Dar, Pakistan’s Finance Minister, announced new measures that would generate new taxes and cut government spending. The revised estimates of June aimed at lowering the original fiscal deficit target by 6.5% of the budget.
A series of high-level meetings (between the Pakistan Prime Minister and the IMF Managing Director) in June, and importantly, IMF conditions-mandated budget revisions have resolved the differences. According to the latest IMF press release, the new Stand-By-Arrangement (SBA) for $3 billion would “provide a policy anchor and a framework for financial support from multilateral and bilateral partners in the period ahead.” This would mean the IMF deal would open other donor opportunities for Pakistan. Finally, Pakistan can breathe as the threat of an immediate default has now been averted.
In September 2023, Pakistan’s Supreme Court will see Justice Qazi Faez Isa becoming the next Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP). He would replace the present CJP Justice Umar Ata Bandial, whose term has been highly controversial vis-à-vis his suo motu cases, actions against the present government and also his decisions within the judiciary. The government was unhappy with him. With his retirement in September 2023, and Justice Isa being the new CJP, the present government should able to breathe better.
Not yet. On the political front, the fall of the PTI chairman may provide temporary relief to the ruling PDM. But the reasons behind his fall show the larger political problems plaguing Pakistan. The political instability has come to an end, not through a dialogue between political actors, but by the brutal downsizing of one party, by an extra-political institution. This has been Pakistan’s problem for the last seven decades. The PPP and the PML-N are on the same page now; with Mr. Khan gone, will they remain so?
On the economic front, Pakistan has succeeded in getting IMF aid. But the larger issues remain such as the need for macro-economic reforms, the prevailing narrow tax base etc. While Pakistan has been forced by the IMF to make adjustments, the change has to come from within. Pakistan has received temporary relief in both economic and political aspects, but only the symptoms have been addressed. The underlying causes remain unresolved.
D. Suba Chandran is Professor and Dean at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS, Bengaluru
Text and Context / The Hindu Explains / Pakistan / riots / election / India-Pakistan
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