Power, Purpose, Governance

Maleeha Lodhi | 28 February 2024
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WHEN PML-N and PPP leaders forged a power-sharing deal last week and announced they had the numbers to form a government, conspicuous by its absence was any mention of what their alliance plans to do.

Elsewhere when such alliances are fashioned there is almost always a common minimum programme agreed among allying parties. This is aimed at setting a policy direction for the government and setting out its priorities. But when there is no effort to formulate an agreed programme of action the impression conveyed is that the alliance is all about power but bereft of public purpose.

The PML-N-PPP joint presser seemed to signal that the priority was to carve up top public offices between them, which raised the question of whether they had an aim other than wielding power and securing access to government posts.

Already an election campaign even more issue-less than in the past provided no clue to how the various aspirants for power would tackle Pakistan’s multiple challenges. No credible plan was offered to voters about how they proposed to solve the country’s problems. People looked in vain for clearly enunciated, implementable ideas to deal with an ailing economy.

Political parties issued perfunctory manifestos on the eve of the election but these barely figured in their campaigning. The manifestos themselves were long on platitudes and extravagant promises but short on substance. This made political parties almost indistinguishable in terms of their stance on issues of public concern.

In what passed for debate on television during the campaign, the accent was on criticising political opponents, not how national problems should be solved. In public rallies too political leaders were preoccupied more with vilifying each other than articulating their stance on public issues.

The electronic media made little effort to direct the political conversation to policy issues or question party representatives on what purpose they would bring to governance. This let political leaders off the hook as they faced little scrutiny on this score. Also ignored were proposals by think tanks and other organisations which laid out policy recommendations for political leaders to consider. These never became part of the political discourse or attracted much TV coverage during the campaign.

This only reinforced a trend in recent years of politics being focused more on power struggles than public policy. Lost in the noise of confrontational politics has been serious consideration of issues critical to the country’s political and economic future. The past few years have also seen the tone and content of political discourse plunge to a low not witnessed before.

In a polarised environment, political narratives have mostly been reduced to deriding rivals. Instead of reasoned debate on issues of national importance, much of the political conversation has consisted of toxic rhetoric and allegations of malfeasance and venality by political leaders against one another.

Have parties that will form the government done any policy thinking on solving the country’s problems?

Not surprisingly, this conduct and language was also evidenced in the election campaign. Political parties fell short of offering a credible vision for the country’s future or any strategy to reach that destination. This at a time when the country confronts unprecedented challenges crying out for answers — the most serious economic crisis in the country’s history, crippling power shortages, surge in security threats, declining capacity of state institutions, deterioration in public service delivery, a fraught regional situation and a polity in which power has shifted much more to the military establishment.

An imposing array of problems await the next government. Obviously, the economy is the number one issue that needs to be urgently addressed. But this requires an environment of calm, which means bringing an end to the present political tensions and turmoil.

The aftermath of a disputed election will not be easy to handle. Much will depend on how seriously the government ensures complaints of ballot fraud are fully investigated so that the election’s credibility is not left in any doubt. This in turn needs an approach that breaks decisively from the past and is predicated on engaging rather than isolating or suppressing the opposition.

Without establishing the conditions for domestic peace and stability, efforts to meet the economic challenge will not succeed. Many political parties have spoken of the need for an extended, larger IMF programme, notwithstanding PTI leaders’ contradictory statements about a Fund loan.

Once the federal government is installed, it is expected to negotiate a new loan package with the IMF. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic recovery. A home-grown economic plan will have to be crafted that entails wide-ranging reforms to tackle the structural roots of Pakistan’s perennial financial crisis and need for bailouts.

The structural sources of persisting financial imbalances are well known — a narrow and inequitable tax regime, limited export base, the energy sector’s circular debt, bankrupt public-sector enterprises, heavy regulatory burden and low savings and investment. Band-aid responses to these problems are no longer tenable. Comprehensive reforms have to be implemented to put Pakistan on the path to growth and investment. Establishing fast-track entities such as the Special Investment Facilitation Council which ignore the unstable macroeconomic situation will yield modest results, if that.

Foreign policy issues for the next government will be no less pressing at a time when the world is in the midst of an intensely unstable period marked by growing geopolitical tensions, two major wars and persisting financial volatility. Making the task more challenging is the tense regional situation with Pakistan’s relations with three of its neighbours all in a troubled and fraught state. These changing global and regional dynamics urge the need for a wide-ranging review of foreign policy as well as a focus early in the government’s tenure on the country’s key bilateral relationships.

The question is how intellectually equipped are political parties that will form the next government to undertake all this. Have they done any thinking about the key issues consequential to the country’s future? Coming months will provide an answer to whether they have the policy wherewithal to govern effectively and not just wield power.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

This article was originally published on Dawn.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.