Author : Sushant Sareen

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 08, 2022 Updated 9 Days ago
Pakistan will continue to be at sixes and sevens even if Imran Khan is on his way out.
Imran’s innings end, but Pakistan’s troubles don’t The Supreme Court of Pakistan’s judgment holding the ruling of the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly (NA) disallowing the vote on the No-Confidence Motion (NCM) against the Prime Minister as ultra vires and unconstitutional, and restoring the NA was exactly what it should have been. In any other country, such a unanimous judgment would be a no-brainer given that it was an open-and-shut case. But in any other country, it is also unlikely that a sitting government would violate the Constitution as flagrantly as Imran Khan’s regime did. In Pakistan, however, the SC ruling was seen as a new dawn for democracy, the upholding of the rule of Constitution and law, and the burial of the infamous ‘doctrine of necessity’ that has been used by Pakistan’s judiciary to legitimise and justify extra-constitutional steps taken mostly by the military. While the euphoria caused by the SC ruling is understandable, it might be a bit of a stretch to consider this judgment as establishing the supremacy of the Constitution and blocking the path of any future extra-constitutional takeover by some dictator. It is one thing for Pakistani judges to pass a judgment against an unpopular civilian regime which had lost the crutches of the military that brought it to power, and quite another for judges to go directly against a military usurper or even against the military’s wishes. At least three judges—Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial, Justice Ijazul Ahsan, and Justice Munib Akhtar—on the five-judge bench that was hearing the matter are not exactly known for being fair or neutral. In fact, some of their judgments have been extremely dubious—the Nawaz Sharif disqualification case and the Justice Faez Isa case are just two examples. But why let inconvenient facts spoil the mood. Suffice to say: One swallow (judgment) does not a summer (democracy) make.
The SC ruling was seen as a new dawn for democracy, the upholding of the rule of Constitution and law, and the burial of the infamous ‘doctrine of necessity’ that has been used by Pakistan’s judiciary to legitimise and justify extra-constitutional steps taken mostly by the military.
Having restored the NA, the vote of no-confidence is now scheduled for 9 April. If the NCM is conducted, then the next Prime Minister will also be elected on that day. At least, this is what the SC has ordered. But Imran Khan isn’t exactly known to follow the rules, especially when he is facing a humiliating defeat. The honourable thing for Imran Khan to do would be to resign. But once again, he isn’t exactly known to do the honourable thing. If anything, he is expected to do everything possible to muddy the waters and put a spoke in the wheel of the parliamentary procedures. There is speculation that the ruling party might resign en masse. There is also some talk of the Deputy Speaker—the Speaker has a NCM against him so he can’t preside over the session—indulging in some more trickery. But the writing on the wall is clear—Imran’s innings has ended and his tantrums can delay his being sent back to the pavilion, but cannot give him another chance in this, and perhaps even the next match. The bottomline being: He is being dropped from the list of probables for now. He has stepped on too many toes, burnt too many bridges, shown poor performance and has a terrible attitude.

Pakistan’s persistent problems

Imran’s end is, however, not the end of Pakistan's problems. He is leaving behind a broken, bankrupt economy that is on the verge of a meltdown; a divided and toxic political culture; strained foreign relations; a governance that is driftinng in its policies and an administration that is in complete disarray. His successor—most likely Shahbaz Sharif—faces a Herculean task to put the country back on the rails. The problem is that he will be landing in a perfect storm and will not have any luxury of time. Pakistan's crises are immediate, but Shahbaz’s space for manoeuvre is very constrained. The turmoil—political, economic, and social—in Pakistan is just starting to unfold and the crown of thorns being placed on Shahbaz’s head will not be easily borne. Shahbaz will have to run the show with a disparate coalition. The components of this coalition have competing interests. They got together to get rid of Imran Khan. Beyond that one-point agenda which they have achieved, they compete against each other. None of them are going to sacrifice their political interests, which will end up pulling the coalition in different directions. To face the onerous, even existential, challenges that confront Pakistan, the last thing Shahbaz needs is this kind of a coalition. He might be able to keep this motley crew together for a couple of months during which the coalition partners will agree on some immediate economic measures, and also do some political and legal engineering to undo some of the malicious things Imran did. But it will be impossible for this coalition to survive until next August, when the term of the National Assembly ends. In other words, Pakistan is likely to see early elections, either by September/October or December/January. Since elections have to be held within 60–90 days of the NA being dissolved, it means that a caretaker setup will have to take over either by June end (for a September election) or by September/October for a December/January election. Why this is important is because by November end, a new army chief has to be appointed. Surely Shahbaz would want to pick the next chief—it is now clear it will not be former ISI Chief Faiz Hameed, the man Imran wanted—before he demits office to a caretaker. A September election which PMLN hopes to win easily will give him time to pick Gen Qamar Bajwa’s successor. A December election will make it a tad difficult because it means announcing the next chief around two to three months before Bajwa retires, making him a lame duck. Of course, the Sharif family’s history with handpicked army chiefs has not been a happy one—Nawaz Sharif had problems with every single army chief he dealt with—but Shahbaz might be thinking that he will break the pattern.
Legislation to overturn some of the egregious laws passed by Imran will have to be executed in order to scrap the overseas Pakistani voting rights and the use of electronic voting machines.
More than the army chief’s selection, it is the political and economic factors that will be also have to be kept in mind before deciding when to dissolve the National Assembly and hand it over to a caretaker. On the political level, the next government will want to make sweeping changes and cleanse the administration of Imran loyalists. They will want to replace the President who is a complete Imran cultist. The Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly will also have to go. Legislation to overturn some of the egregious laws passed by Imran will have to be executed in order to scrap the overseas Pakistani voting rights and the use of electronic voting machines. Provincial governors will need to be changed. A coalition government led by PMLN will have to be in place in Punjab. Chances are that if the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remains recalcitrant, a NCM will be forced in Peshawar to replace that government. All this will have to be done in a fraught political climate with anti-defection cases galore and all other kinds of politico–legal complications. Most of all, the federal government will have to convince all four provinces to agree to dissolve the provincial assemblies so that simultaneous elections can take place. And all this assumes that the relationship between the coalition partners remains on even keel.

Continuing economic issues

The mother of all challenges will be economic. There are no quick fix solutions available. Any temporary assistance—a few billion dollars either from Saudi Arabia, China, or the UAE, or even an emergency International Monetary Fund (IMF) funding—will not take Pakistan very far and will only postpone the meltdown by a few months. As things stand, the rupee is crashing, foreign exchange reserves are dangerously low and depleting at a fast rate, the rate of interest has been hiked which will have a devastating effect on businesses and also raise the debt servicing cost to a point where even the bulk of defence spending will be met through borrowing. Inflation is likely to go through the roof because subsidies will have to be withdrawn and fuel and power rates raised sharply. There are estimates that the Pakistani rupee could breach the 200 to a dollar level in a couple of weeks; petrol prices will have to be raised nearly by PKR50–60 i.e., around 30–40 percent to break even. No political party can afford to impose such costs on the voters a few weeks before elections. At best what a political government will do is some tinkering around so that the economy doesn’t sink. The bulk of the really tough measures will be taken either by the caretaker or the new government which comes into office after the elections.
The rupee is crashing, foreign exchange reserves are dangerously low and depleting at a fast rate, the rate of interest has been hiked which will have a devastating effect on businesses and also raise the debt servicing cost to a point where even the bulk of defence spending will be met through borrowing.
There is a theoretical possibility of Shahbaz deciding to take the risk and hold office until August next when the current National Assembly term ends. But this would mean managing the coalition and implementing the tough economic measures and hoping that the economy turns around. The chances of that happening are extremely slim given the scale of the problems. Structural reforms take years and not months. They require strong political will, something that politicians will find difficult to summon when they are facing an election. Simply put, even if Shahbaz is ready to implement the tough decisions, his coalition partners will balk and perhaps even desert him. Therefore, chances are that the Shahbaz government will only be there for a short interregnum and will soon give way to a caretaker which will hold fresh elections by September/October, maybe even earlier if the Election Commission works overtime. It would be surprising if Shahbaz presents the budget for the next fiscal. The odds are in favour of him presenting a vote on account and handing over to a caretaker. Ideally a caretaker will wait for an elected government to present the full budget. It is, however, possible that given the economic crisis, the caretaker (manned by technocrats) will administer the bitter economic pill (which suits the politicians). Of course, there is also a possibility that if the economy starts melting down, then the caretaker could see an extended tenure, sanctioned by the same SC that delivered a blow for democracy on 7 April, and will be backed by the military which for quite some time now has wanted to see a technocrat government set things right—the Bangladesh model as it is called in Pakistan. Whichever way you cut it, Pakistan is going to face some real torrid times for some time to come.
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Author

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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