What next?

What next?
All are agreed. Pakistan is faced with its most serious economic crisis to date. The problem is accentuated by some critical political deadlocks and constitutional subversions. How did we get to this point? Who is responsible? How do we get out of it?

The civil-military ruling gentry – landlords, big businessmen, generals, judges and “civil servants” -- have brought us to this pass. Over the decades, this gentry has lived off American and international handouts to establish a largely rent-extraction, imported consumer goods-based economy with low rates of savings and investment, low import substitution, subsisting on low tax revenues, high fiscal and current account deficits, high unproductive “defense” expenditures, resulting in increasing domestic and international debt. In the last three decades, export of manpower rather than high value added manufactured goods and services has enabled us to keep our head barely above water. But the free American lunch has gone and deepening structural imbalances have finally caught up on the gentry’s perks, privileges and subsidies, fueling rising income inequality and inflation, currency devaluation and unsustainable expenditures and debt servicing.

The solution proposed by the gentry’s economists is to borrow more at home and abroad. But the problem is that lenders have got wise to the financial risks involved in bailing out Pakistan without targeted guarantees of long-overdue, painful structural reforms. The fact that such belt-tightening measures are more likely to stress out the have-nots rather than the haves is creating a difficult problem for political stakeholders locked in a battle for office and power via the ballot box.

In the last four years of the PTI regime, the economy has gone from bad to worse, accentuating structural imbalances to breaking point. This was one of the pegs on which the Opposition and Miltablishment decided to order regime change. The other mutual compulsion was Imran Khan’s determination to unconstitutionally consolidate power for another term and wittingly perpetuate the same socio-economic cleavages and imbalances in society that have laid Pakistan low. Now we are faced with fresh dilemmas.

Imran Khan is hitting back. He will not allow the new PDM government to stay long enough in office to fix the economy and reap its electoral benefits before calling fresh polls. The Miltablishment leaders who took the decision to stop propping him up are now under pressure from their own rank and file to give him another chance at office by committing to immediate general elections. But this goes against the demand of the economy that requires urgent fixing and the grain of an “understanding” with the Opposition that it will take the tough and unpopular decisions to do the job provided it is given at least 18 months to do it.

Under the circumstances, the Miltablishment leaders have done a U-Turn and decided to accede to the demands of their pro-Imran constituency. They are now pressurizing the PDM government to take the tough measures in the next two months and then make way for fresh elections that put a new government in office by next October when the critical appointment of a new army chief is to be made. In other words, the Miltablishment wants to have its cake and eat it too. But this is a suicidal option for the PDM. It will be wiped out in a general election after tightening the screws on its voters. It is also an established fact that the PDM is in no position to resist the powerful Miltablishment, nor to stem Imran Khan’s populist surge without administrative backing from the same Miltablishment. It doesn’t help that its insufficient parliamentary numbers in Islamabad and Lahore don’t inspire much hope of constitutional resistance, not least when the “unholy nexus” between the generals and judges is the rage of social media.

The PMLN huddle in London was aimed at finding a way out of this dilemma. It came to the conclusion that it should sign on the dotted line with the IMF – including increasing energy prices – in the national interest, provided only that the Miltablishment wouldn’t pull the rug from under its feet until the scheduled general elections in 2023, thereby leaving it out to dry before an angry populace. Back home, however, the situation had changed overnight. The Miltablishment now wanted the PDM to do the needful vis a vis the IMF and Budget 2022-23 and then obediently dissolve itself in July for a new government to be installed before October. Naturally, this was perceived as yet another example of “betrayal” by the Miltablishment. Why should we clean up the mess left behind by the Selectors’ puppet and then pay the price by losing the elections, they asked themselves, let the hand-picked caretakers of the Miltablishment do the job because they won’t be accountable at the polls.

Critics of the PDM ask why it took office when it couldn’t deliver the goods. Why didn’t it agree to a dissolution of parliament as ordered by Imran Khan on the eve of his ouster if it was eventually going to come to the same thing six weeks later? The answer is simple: it was understood they would deliver the goods by 2023 and a U-Turn by the Miltablishment wasn’t countenanced. Others insist that a better option was to have let Imran Khan rule until 2023 and discredit himself thoroughly instead of hastening his departure and giving him a chance to make a quick comeback. The answer to this too is simple: the PDM feared, and rightly so, that if Imran Khan could last long enough to appoint his own army chief in November 2022, he would use his services to rig the 2023 elections like he did in 2018 and assure himself another five year term which he would use to crush whatever remained of the Opposition by overpowering the constitution and other powerful institutions.

As matters stand, the PDM government may be on its way out and we expect the caretakers will sign up with the IMF. But we certainly can’t say how long the Caretakers will stay, whether the elections will be free and fair, whether these elections will be held on time or postponed on some pretext legitimized by a servile judiciary, and who will appoint the next army chief or extend the tenure of the current one.

As we speak, however, Asif Zardari is making a last ditch attempt to persuade the Miltablishment and PMLN to let this PDM government stay and complete the rest of the parliamentary term. He believes together they can push back Imran Khan and bring political and economic stability to the country.

Whatever the immediate outcome, the political crisis of state and society is far from over. Indeed, we cannot rule out the possibility that in the next inevitable round of political turmoil, all political stakeholders, including PPP, PMLN and PTI, will be on the same page against the Miltablishment, determined to assert civilian autonomy (if not supremacy).

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.