Imran like all populist leaders, believes that his oversimplified anti-corruption narrative is the road to Nirvana
There is a feeling that Imran Khan, by advising the President to dissolve the National Assembly, has pulled off a last minute master stroke. The dissolution of the lower house the day it was to hold a vote on the no-trust motion against the PM is being touted as a winning sixer on the last ball of a match.
Contrary to the popular view, I personally feel that the events over the last couple of months, particularly during the last few days, are no master strokes. In fact, they have done much harm to our already fragile democracy, to our standing in the world, and to our prospects for developing our economy.
Imran Khan, like all populist leaders, believes that his oversimplified anti-corruption narrative is the road to Nirvana. He also believes that all tactics are legitimate to get to power and to stay there as long as possible.
Maybe one could forgive him his early naïveté where he thought his personality and commitment would catapult him to power. One could even forgive him his pact with the ‘electables’. Most likely it was not a cynical move and in his simple mind it was the only way to get to a Naya Pakistan. Most likely he was convinced that once he was in power, the electables would happily travel with him on his road to reform.
But as all Faustian pacts, his too was bound to hit problems. The electables wanted their pound of flesh. And so it was. Key ministries were handed to the usual suspects. The Prime Minister failed to create a strong team of technically qualified people and failed to bring in major reforms. On the economic front he never found the time, or courage, to handle big issues such as getting rid of loss-making State Owned Enterprises, overhauling the civil service, eliminating or at least reducing distortionary subsidies, or reforming the tax system. Instead he ended up announcing the launch of mega-projects and ever more ambitious schemes; providing tax amnesties; and battling with the IMF. The economy faltered and inflation accelerated.
Certainly it was not all the fault of the PTI government. The Covid-19 pandemic, the problematic post-Covid recovery, the rise in commodity prices, and rising international tensions all played their part. But the overall perception is that the Prime Minister and his team did not do a great job in managing the economy.
And as it became increasingly difficult to deliver on his myriad promises he did not hesitate to woo obscurantist and violent elements in society, to instrumentalise the deep divisions in our society, and to weaken our institutions.
The no-trust motion came at a time of great economic difficulty where the anti-corruption narrative was wearing thin. People no longer believe that stolen money could be recovered, and even if it is recovered, it will not solve their problems. In a recent poll done by Gallup, 48% of people surveyed cited inflation as the most important problem while only 6% cited corruption.
And so quite understandably the Opposition did what oppositions do. They saw the Prime Minister’s difficulties as an opportunity to dislodge the government. But instead of trying to negotiate and talk, the PM ramped up his rhetoric against the opposition. He has been hurling insults, talking about a choice between good (himself) and evil (others), and making threats of how difficult things would be become if he were out of power. He then tried to appeal to the Pakistanis’ general sense of victimhood by insisting that the no-trust vote was a plot by the US to get rid of the PTI government. People close to him even started to talk about a plot on his life.
PTI leaders also publically maligned their own MNAs by highlighting reports of bags full of money changing hands while politicians who were previously labeled as thieves and daakoos were promised powerful positions.
Not being sure of keeping their own party members and allies in line, the government tried to use the Speaker to stop MNAs from crossing the floor. When all else failed he asked the President to dissolve the Assembly which the President duly did.
Dissolving parliament at the request of the PM is not an appropriate procedure in a parliamentary democracy. When a government no longer has the trust of parliament – either because of a formal no-confidence vote or loss of a critical piece of legislation – the PM tenders a resignation to the President. But before dissolving parliament and calling for new elections, the President needs to ascertain if there is any other party or coalition that can form a government. Only when it is clear that there is no party or coalition with a consensus in parliament, then, and only then, is parliament dissolved.
By not following this procedure, the Constitution has been harmed and key institutions, such as those of President and Speaker, who are supposed to be super partis, have been discredited.
And if resignation and early elections was ‘victory’ for PTI, why could this not have been done several months ago without the fighting and infighting, without several long-marches, without sit-ins and sit-outs, and without publically accusing our major international trading, military and financial partners?
And here is the ten million dollar question: will all this crisis and chaos eventually make Pakistan a better place for its citizens, particularly its poor citizens?
There will certainly be a long period of turbulence. Elections need to be organised, party tickets handed out, funding and campaigns organised. And after the election there will once again be claims and counter-claims of rigging. Most likely no one party will get an outright majority and there will be lots of horse trading related to appointment of minsters, special advisers and general hangers on.
Most likely it will be at least a year before we can dedicate attention to our deep-seated problems; a precious year we will not be able to position ourselves to take advantage of fundamental shifts that are taking place in the world order and reshaping the foundations of the global political and economic order. This is precious time lost.
But I guess all this will not stop our Kaptaan Sahib doing a victory dance on the lawns of the PM House.
Daud Khan is a retired UN staff member based in Rome. He has degrees in economics from LSE and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar
This article was originally published on The Express Tribune. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.