IS the country becoming ungovernable? Several factors seem to point in that direction. Governance problems have mounted in the first instance due to political discontinuities that have punctuated Pakistan’s turbulent history. But today, the challenge of governability is more imposing because of a number of other factors in addition to long-standing ones.
The current political polarisation is the obvious new factor. It is unprecedented despite Pakistan’s long tradition of divisive politics. Never before have people, society and families been so divided by their partisan preferences as they are today and resistant to accepting any view other than their own. The uncompromising stance of the former ruling party has sharpened this polarisation. It has eliminated any middle ground and made political accommodation near impossible.
The confrontation between PTI and the Rest has produced a situation in which parliament has been left without an opposition and the laws it has adopted bereft of wider consensus. As differences appear unbridgeable, finding political solutions to disputes is ruled out. With PTI intent on paralysing the system until it gets its way on early elections, its conduct has created an unsettled environment, making governing more difficult. This is also testing the democratic system.
This situation is casting a shadow on state institutions which are increasingly the target of partisan attacks in the raging political battle. Whether it is the establishment, judiciary or Election Commission, if their stance or decisions are seen as favourable to a political party, praise is showered on them. If the opposite happens, they are criticised for being biased.
Imran Khan keeps questioning the ECP and judiciary’s impartiality, with PTI trolls often assailing these institutions on social media. His criticism of the establishment, including accusations that it did nothing to stop the ‘foreign conspiracy’ against his government, is a pressure tactic to force it to change course.
Similarly, Khan has rejected repeated clarifications by the military spokesman that there is no evidence to support his claims of a foreign conspiracy. The consequence of this stance is to sow mistrust in state institutions among his fan-like supporters, even beyond his base. This is breeding cynicism and widening divisions in society. Whether or not PTI’s leadership understands the deleterious effects of miring state institutions in controversy it compounds the challenge of governance. Rejection or defiance of the judiciary or ECP’s decisions means undermining a rules-based framework. Trust in institutions is the bedrock of democracy and the governance system, integral to the ability to execute policies.
In a political landscape where there is lack of a civil discourse, the exchange of bitter accusations holds sway rather than sober debate on national issues. Discussion of public policy is substituted by fact-free efforts to demonise political rivals. This distracts the government from governing and the opposition from focusing on issues. When the political conversation is only about how venal the other side is national problems are neither seriously discussed nor solutions offered to them.
What has made governance more problematic is erosion in the state’s institutional capacity over the years and the resultant deterioration in delivery of public services, which increasingly fails to meet people’s expectations. Weakening of the instruments of governance has meant that even the most well-devised policy becomes harder to implement. Postponed reforms, piecemeal tinkering and lack of efforts to depoliticise the civil service have weakened the government machinery over time. It has undermined public confidence in government institutions and made governance more onerous.
The most important and recurring factor driving the country towards becoming ungovernable are dysfunctional economic policies that have long been pursued. Almost every government since the mid-1980s acted in a fiscally irresponsible way and left the economy in worse shape for its successor to deal with.
Structural economic problems were left to fester, confronting the country every so often with a financial crisis that became a chronic threat to stability. For the past four decades, failure to mobilise enough domestic resources along with low levels of savings and investment, meant successive governments ran huge deficits in national expenditure and on the country’s external account. These twin deficits — budget and balance of payments — were financed by printing more currency notes and the inflow of funds from abroad through borrowing and remittances from overseas Pakistanis.
Reliance on domestic and foreign borrowing and bailouts landed Pakistan in a classic debt trap where more had to be borrowed to pay off old debt. It also left the country living from one IMF tranche to another. Moreover, bank borrowing at home served as an immensely regressive measure because it meant forced transfer of savings to the government from people least able to bear the burden of inflation, the most pernicious tax on the poor.
Economic management that relied on borrowing allowed the country’s ruling elite to avoid and postpone much-needed structural reforms, including serious tax reform, that could have placed the economy on a viable path. It also explains public unwillingness to comply with policy measures imposed on them by an inequitable system.
This kind of economic management was reinforced by successive governments — civil and military. A rentier ruling elite created a rentier economy. That is why the structural sources of the country’s chronic financial imbalances have remained unaddressed: a narrow and inequitable tax regime, the energy sector’s circular debt, bankrupt public-sector enterprises, a broken public finance management system, an overvalued exchange rate, heavy regulatory burden and a narrow export base.
The chickens have now come home to roost. The country is in the throes of another financial crisis, foreign exchange reserves have depleted, inflation is at an all-time high, power shortages are placing an unbearable burden on people, and an IMF bailout is being sought to avert default.
It is true that the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic factors have exacerbated Pakistan’s economic plight. Soaring international oil prices are further fuelling the balance-of-payments crisis and inflation while global shortages of LNG are compounding the country’s power crisis today. Nevertheless, a weak economy with little resilience to cushion such shocks is the result of poor economic management by reform-averse ruling elites concerned more with preserving their own power than promoting the public interest. The confluence of polarised politics and economic turmoil is now pushing Pakistan into the danger zone of becoming ungovernable.