The next 22 months

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By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

ANY government would feel overwhelmed by the challenges it expects to face in the remaining 22 months of its 60-month term but more so in the case of the current PTI-led government as its track record shows that it is quite accident-prone and sometime ends up creating perfectly avoidable crises for itself. Many examples can be cited but the most recent example of the appointment of the new DG ISI will suffice as a case in point. It was no secret that the DG ISI had to move to a new assignment. A decision regarding his continuing in the job or replacement should have been taken months ago but a last-minute crisis was allowed to happen.

There are at least 11 key challenges which the government is going to face in the next 22 months including four major challenges in the context of the electoral process and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

Government ministers, using their official position, premises and resources, have not only criticised but also used very strong language against the ECP and the chief election commissioner. The chief spokesman of the government also called upon the other two members of the commission to revolt against the CEC. The ECP has asked for explanations from the ministers which may be a precursor to contempt proceedings under Section 10 of the Elections Act 2017. There is still time to amicably settle the issue but if it is not resolved, it may blow up in the face of the ministers concerned, with its attendant ramifications.

The foreign funding case against the PTI is in its concluding phase and the ECP judgement may embarrass and create serious difficulties for the ruling party.

Serious irregularities were discovered by the ECP against some 20 presiding officers and Punjab government officials during the by-election in NA-75, commonly known as the Daska election, in February this year. The inquiry is almost complete and the ECP may announce a verdict or undertake an open trial soon leading to possible trouble for the government.

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The government is insisting on the introduction of electronic voting machines, internet voting for overseas Pakistanis and some other changes in the electoral system before the 2023 general election without reaching a consensus with other political parties. Even the ECP has expressed its reservations about some of these proposed changes. These differences can lead to conflict and the next general election may become controversial even 22 months before the polls.

Management of the economy, especially with regard to rising inflation, remains the greatest challenge during the next 22 months. Attached to this is the question of reaching an agreement with the IMF and securing FATF clearance to exit the grey list.

The government has also committed to holding a fresh population census and base the next election on the population figures from the new census. This may be easier said than done. The census operations require about 18 months, and after that the ECP needs some six months to demarcate the national and provincial assemblies’ constituencies. Generally, the armed forces are requisitioned to assist the census operations and the military usually finds it difficult to spare a large number of military personnel for such operations. Then, there is no guarantee that all those parties and groups which refused to accept the census undertaken in 2017 will accept the next census. Multiple pitfalls are obvious in the roll-out of the fresh census.

Although the superior courts and the ECP have been pushing for local government elections, the PTI-led governments in Punjab and KP have failed to hold elections there during the past three years. Holding these elections close to the general election may constitute a major political test for the government and could impact the general election results too. Even though the PPP government in Sindh also failed to hold timely LG elections, the inability to hold LG polls by the PTI may cause much greater embarrassment as the party had traditionally supported strong local governments.

The army chief is scheduled to retire in November 2022. The prime minister will again face the question of either granting another extension to him or appointing a new one. Whether the government will be able to steer the transition according to the law and without kicking up too much dust is a moot point.

The Supreme Court will witness two transitions at the top during the next 22 months. Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed will retire in February 2022 to be succeeded by Justice Umar Ata Bandial. Justice Qazi Faez Isa is scheduled to become chief justice of Pakistan in August 2023 at a very critical time when the campaign for the next general election will be in full swing. The PTI government has repeatedly raised questions regarding the integrity of Justice Isa in the past through references to the Supreme Judicial Council. In this backdrop, it remains to be seen whether this particular transition will be a smooth one.

Barring a few, the mass media in Pakistan, the opposition political parties and a major section of civil society are unanimous in their objection to the proposed creation of the Pakistan Media Development Authority and consider it a plan to control the media. A first round of agitation against the proposed authority which started a few days before the fourth parliamentary year was inaugurated by the president is continuing and may gain further momentum during the coming months.

On the external front, recognition of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, successful realignment of the relationship with the US, maintaining cordial and strong economic ties with China and doing homework for the extension of the GSP-Plus agreement with the EU beyond 2023 remain the key challenges for the next 22 months.

These challenges need to be faced maturely with necessary groundwork in the next 22 months, not only for the sake of the government and the ruling party but also in the larger national interest. The government needs to critically analyse its handling of past challenges and learn from them.

(The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. president@pildat.org Twitter: @ABMPildat)