ZAHID HUSSAIN: Imran Khan has laid down the basic policy framework for his impending government, seeking national reconciliation and promising to focus on economic reforms. In his first public address since his party swept the polls, the prime minister-in-waiting declared that his administration would crack down on corruption and hold accountability across the board.
He has also vowed to strengthen state institutions and improve relations with the US and neighboring countries, saying Pakistan needs peace for economic progress. “We are facing governance and economic challenges. Our economy has never been so abysmal. It’s because institutions have not been doing their jobs,” Khan declared in a nationally televised speech.
A former sports hero turned politician, he saw his dream of reaching the highest pedestal of power come true when his party swept the polls, defeating the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), headed by ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The election was marred by widespread allegations of vote-rigging involving security agencies. Khan said he is willing to assist in investigations into any foul play.
Notwithstanding the controversies surrounding the election, Pakistan has achieved a second consecutive democratic transition. What is believed to be one of the most critical elections is likely to ease political uncertainty in the country. The emphatic victory for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has defied the forecast of a hung Parliament and another period of weak coalition government.
Given the intense political polarization in the country, and the growing imbalance of power among various state institutions, the challenges for the newly elected government will be daunting. The worsening economic situation and multiple external problems have made things more complex.It will require a broad consensus among the major political forces to restore the credibility of the democratic process and strengthen elected institutions. A credible democratic transition could open a window of opportunity for national reconciliation. There is certainly a need for a new social contract to end the confrontation between various state institutions, which has been the major cause of political instability in the country.
The democratic process cannot be sustained with the existing imbalance of power. But the supremacy of elected institutions is also linked with the rule of law. One hopes that the newly elected lawmakers and government will learn from past mistakes that have allowed non-elected institutions to gain greater space.
The politics of vendetta should come to an end after the election, and a broad agreement must be reached on key national issues. It is imperative to resolve the civil-military conflict, but it is wrong to see all the issues in that binary.
The economy will be the thorniest issue for the new government. Unfortunately, there was not much focus on this most critical issue in the election campaign beyond rhetoric. It is alarming that foreign exchange reserves are falling and the current account deficit is growing. It seems that the new administration will have no other option but to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). That means tightening one’s belt.
The increasing debt burden, both domestic and external, has compounded financial woes. The circular debt has ballooned yet again, intensifying the energy crisis. The new administration will have to introduce tough reforms to deal with this serious financial crisis. But for that, it will need the support of opposition parties and state institutions. There is a need for a national charter to deal with the worsening economic crisis, which also threatens national security.
Terrorism and religious extremism are another serious problem that requires parliamentary consensus. True, the level of militant violence has come down significantly because of successful military operations in the tribal areas, but recent attacks show that the terrorist threat is far from over.
The issue has become serious with Pakistan being placed on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list. The concern is that unless it takes action, the country could be at risk of being blacklisted. Such a situation could increase Pakistan’s international isolation, compounding its economic woes.
External challenges also demand a clear policy direction with all stakeholders on board. Fast-changing regional geopolitics has exacerbated Pakistan’s foreign policy predicament and opened a new window of opportunity. Khan’s speech has raised hope of a more confident approach.
Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington.