Storm on the Horizon

Storm on the Horizon
Finance Minister Asad Umar is preparing the third budget in nine months of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf-led government. This budget is being prepared as Pakistan continues to face pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and with inflation hitting the highest mark in five years – a little below 10 percent. The rupee continues its free fall, inching towards Rs150 for a single dollar and power and gas tariffs have been jacked up. The latest hike in petroleum prices has most people gasping and looking at their wallets before going out for errands that might require use of vehicles.

The government is so desperate that it has now announced a new tax amnesty scheme - something that Asad Umar and Imran Khan campaigned against vociferously until last year. Over the last seven months, the government has not been able to launch a single successful project. The recent report by a Khyber Pakhtunkhwa inspection team on Peshawar’s BRT project and the recent report on ghost schools and fake enrolments in the province ruled by the PTI for the last six years have only added to the embarrassment being faced by the party.
The issue of the extension of military courts continues to hang in the balance as that, too, is affected by the treasury-opposition tussle

Most pundits with some expertise on the economy suggest that by the time Pakistan signs up for the IMF program, inflation, economic stagnation and unemployment will be much worse. They believe the downturn will continue for the foreseeable future. All those promises of 10 million new jobs and five million new houses are likely to remain marks of shame rather than jubilation.

Statecraft and legislation is also in a state of limbo. The last seven months have not seen any progress on the legislative agenda because a lot of time was wasted in the formation of committees. In this time, Prime Minister Imran Khan kept throwing tantrums over the idea of Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif taking over as the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. Even after retreating from this position, Khan and his ministers have often brought the issue back in discussion.

The stalemate is evident from the way the government dealt with its constitutional duty to consult with the leader of the opposition over filling vacant seats in the Election Commission of Pakistan. First, the prime minister wasted a lot of time and the deadline passed. When media and the opposition made some noise, he made a lacklustre effort by asking Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to handle the matter.

When the opposition pointed out the rule that nobody could be a proxy of the prime minister to engage in consultation over the matter, he sent a letter to Shehbaz Sharif. The issue remains unresolved. It will get more problematic if the issue is not addressed by the committee with six members from each the treasury and the opposition. If there is no resolution over the issue, we are headed towards another constitutional crisis, as the document on the next course of action is silent.

The confrontation with the opposition has also impacted the federation and the provinces, especially Sindh where the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rules. Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah was conspicuous by his absence during the last visit of the prime minister to the province. Khan’s outburst against the 18th Amendment and a cavalier announcement that the name of Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) stands changed created a new ruckus.

The PTI’s rainbow coalition government enjoying a razor thin majority in the National Assembly and having a tiny minority in the Senate obviously does not have the numbers to imagine a move against the 18th Amendment. Even BISP’s name cannot be changed so easily. On Tuesday, the cabinet got a reality check and Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, who is usually excited to take on the opposition, had to announce that the government had no plans to change the name of the outfit.

The issue of the extension of military courts continues to hang in the balance as that, too, is affected by the treasury-opposition tussle. When the prime minister is not even willing to be in the same room with the leaders of the opposition, as witnessed in the in-camera briefing during the escalation with India, how do you expect any negotiations on this thorny issue?

“Imran Khan has been pitched against the opposition so hard that he has no capital to engage the opposition on the issue. Now the establishment will have to directly talk to the opposition should it want the extension of these courts,” said a veteran journalist in Islamabad.

How comfortable is the miltablishment engaging the opposition on the issue of the extension of the military courts? “It is not that easy since both the PML-N and the PPP feel pushed to the wall. It is possible but not easy,” said another analyst.

The most worrying thing for the miltablishment is the fact that the ruling party is falling apart because of internal contests between various stakeholders in the coalition as well as the party. A veteran like Shah Mehmood Qureshi blasting Jehangir Tareen in a press conference, flanked by Governor Chaudhry Sarwar, has sent shockwaves to across the country. It raised questions about the political order which carried the tag of instability from day one. Imran Khan has suppressed dissent within the cabinet for now, but has not resolved conflict within the party. It seems that Khan has decided to side with the proverbial moneybag, Jehangir Tareen for now, but these cracks involve other members of the cabinet and differences have created multiple layers and tiers within the divided house of the party.

As the spring turns in to a hot summer and people’s discontentment grows, will this divided house sustain and absorb the shocks of any mass outburst? It does not look good.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad