Discourse of change in government in Pakistan

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By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has not even completed the first eighteen months of its term, yet the discourse of “in-house change,” “national government” and “fresh election” is gaining momentum. One may partly attribute this to the trend established by Imran Khan’s 2014 sit-in that seemingly made it politically acceptable to demand change of government in a little more than a year after an election. But the PTI government’s vulnerability appears to be due to a number of fault lines affecting its stability. Individually, these fault lines are not unique to the current administration, though they may become lethal when taken together.

The most dangerous fault line threatening the very existence of PTI governments at the center and in the most densely populated Punjab province is a lack of majority in the two assemblies without the support of its allies. The PTI needs the support of at least 172 National Assembly members to rule at the center, but it has only 156 members. Seven allied parties supplement the PTI tally to enable it to rule. Imran Khan was elected prime minister with a razor-thin majority of just four votes. Added to this delicate calculus is the recent disenchantment of coalition partners. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML) which command seven and five votes respectively have already made public their differences with the PTI. The MQM has even resigned from the cabinet. If these two coalition partners part ways, the PTI majority and the government will collapse, even if the rest of the coalition remains intact.

ISLAMABAD: Members of Parliament PML(N) hold a protest against the price hikes outside Parliament House. INP PHOTO by Shahid Raju

But all is not well with other coalition partners, either. The Balochistan National Party (BNP) and Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) control four and three votes respectively, and they have also shown signs of restlessness, though the PTI has apparently succeeded in placating them. The PTI position in Punjab is equally precarious where it has 181 members against the required 186 to establish a majority. The ruling party is totally dependent on ten PML votes in the province to stay in power. While the PTI may not be able to change these numbers, it needs to work harder to manage coalitions.

Even if the ruling party is able to keep the coalitions intact, the idealist supporters of Imran Khan may not be happy with the compromise. The recent agreement reached by PTI’s Khattak-Tareen-Arbab committee with the PML has apparently been shot down as the idealist PTI workers thought that the committee had conceded too much to its coalition partner. Another great challenge facing the PTI government is, therefore, striking a balance between the harsh realities of coalition politics and the workers’ idealism nurtured by Imran Khan through his speeches over the years.

Imran Khan came to power riding the tide of populism, propelling public expectations of good governance. The PTI leader had successfully made his followers believe that all other leaders in Pakistan were corrupt and unable to achieve economic progress and that once the uncompromising and aboveboard Imran Khan was in the saddle, the country would see pure merit, economic boom, fair accountability, return of looted wealth and establishment of a welfare state akin to the state of Madinah established by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

The PTI may have tangible explanations, but the fact remains that the dream of good governance appears to be going sour. The government attributes the record inflation, unemployment and slowdown in businesses to the bad governance of previous administrations, but the argument seems to be losing its value with a passage of time. A recent public opinion survey indicated a record drop from 58 percent to 38 percent in the number of people who believed that previous governments were responsible for the country’s economic problems. The same survey indicated that only 25 percent people were satisfied with the overall performance of the PTI government in January 2020 compared to 49 percent in October 2019, indicating a substantial fall.

Public perception about the teams placed in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) by Khan is also turning negative, indicating that both chief ministers had not managed to establish themselves as good administrators despite strong prime ministerial support. Slow pace of mainstreaming former Federally Administrative Tribal Areas (FATA) and mishandling of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) are two key challenges to the ruling party in KP which need effective response.

Although strict anti-defection laws bind PTI legislators to party discipline, recent dissentions within the PTI ranks in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa should be taken as early signals of a potential disarray.

Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan, had given an overwhelming mandate to the PTI through 70 percent of National Assembly seats in 2018. Not addressing monumental civic problems of the city, preferably in collaboration with the provincial government or through federal programs, will be a huge lapse.

The prime minister’s attendance in the National Assembly during the first year was merely 18 percent. Continuing failure to effectively engage with parliament through greater attendance and the promised Question Hour for PM may ultimately haunt Imran Khan.

Every government has its own set of fault lines: Success is defined by how well it copes with these.

(The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT; Tweets at @ABMPildat)