NOTWITHSTANDING the controversies surrounding the run-up to the elections, the country is set to achieve a second consecutive democratic transition. They may be dirty but the votes still count. The people will give their verdict today in what is believed to be one of the most critical elections to determine the future course of politics in this country. The outcome remains unpredictable.
If opinion polls are to be believed, the PTI seems to be ahead in the contest, but that could change at the last moment with the PML-N running a close race. Whatever the result, one thing is almost certain: no party will be able to get an absolute majority to form the next government. The battle for Islamabad will not be decided at the polls alone, raising the stakes for the smaller parties. So most likely there will be another period of coalition rule for good or bad.
The politics of vendetta must end after the polls and a broad agreement should be reached on key issues.
A major question, however, is whether the elections will bring much-needed political stability. Given the intense political polarisation 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.
Most importantly, the polls must be seen as credible and the results accepted by all parties and state institutions. Widespread allegations of pre-poll political engineering have already led to misgivings. But any attempt to tinker with the poll results could bring into question the entire democratic process and cause further political instability. It will be extremely difficult for a government with doubtful legitimacy to deal with the internal and external challenges.
It will require a broad consensus among the major political forces to restore the credibility of the democratic process and strengthen the elected institutions. A credible democratic transition could open a window of opportunity for a national reconciliation. There is certainly a need for a new social contract to end the confrontation between various institutions of state that has been the major cause of political instability in the country.
Surely, 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 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 elections and a broad agreement must be reached on key national issues. Surely, it is imperative to resolve the civil-military conflict, but it is also wrong to see all the issues in that binary.
It is evident that the economy will be the thorniest issue for the new government. Unfortunately, there has not been 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 growing, and it seems that the new administration will have no other option but to seek an IMF bailout. That means tightening one’s belt. The previous government had failed to enforce critical structural reforms vital to sustainable economic development. It is true the growth rate remained relatively high, but the increasing debt burden, both domestic and external, has compounded financial woes. The circular debt has ballooned yet again, intensifying the energy crisis.
Indeed, the new administration will have to introduce some tough reforms to deal with this serious financial crisis. But for that it will also need the support of the opposition parties and other state institutions. There is a need for a national economic charter to deal with the worsening economic crisis that also threatens our national security.
Terrorism and religious extremism are another serious problem that would require parliamentary consensus. True, the level of militant violence has come down significantly because of successful military operations in the tribal areas, but the recent attacks show that the terrorist threat is far from over. The growing activities of the militant Islamic State group must be a cause of serious concern.
Political opportunism and expediency have further emboldened radical elements as seen in the emergence of new, even more extremist groups that have been allowed to participate in the elections. Similarly, banned organisations now functioning under new banners seem to have been legitimised in violation of the law and the National Action Plan.
The arbitrary mainstreaming of some militant groups has provoked international criticism. At least three candidates belonging to a banned group are on the UN terror list. The issue has become serious with Pakistan having been placed on the 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 our economic woes. Can we afford this? More worrisome is that some political parties have a soft corner for these extremist groups and ignore the concerns of the international community including some of our closest allies. It is time our lawmakers realised the gravity of the situation.
External challenges also demand a clear policy direction with all the stakeholders on board. The fast-changing regional geopolitics has exacerbated Pakistan’s foreign policy predicament as well as opened a new window of opportunity.
Growing estrangement with the US, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, tensions with India and relations with China will be the major foreign policy issues the new government will have to deal with. Our alliance that emerged after 9/11 has come full circle. We need to have a clear stance on how to protect our interests, but a complete break from Washington is not an option.
Perhaps the biggest foreign policy challenge for the new government will be to figure out how to normalise relations with New Delhi and manage business with Beijing.
Pakistan finds itself in complex foreign policy circumstances and once the new government is sworn in, managing foreign relations will be one of its biggest challenges. For that, there is a need for a national consensus.
By: Zahid Hussain