Behind the thick fog of upbeat mood, expectations, and predictions about the 8 February election, there is an irritating realization that the country’s fundamental economic and political problems are here to stay, at least in the foreseeable future. It will perhaps be generally admitted that the electoral process can help set up a new political dispensation. Still, it is a far cry from expecting even a subtle change in people’s lives. Viewed from this perspective, the upcoming elections are just a tiny step in a very long journey that demands future leadership to demonstrate innovation, consistency, and commitment for a sustained period.

People are understandably hard-pressed as inflation continues to hover around 40 percent. This is backbreaking not only for the poor and lower-middle-class families but also for the upper-middle-class and rich people. This, coupled with a high-interest rate of 22 percent, has almost jammed the economic wheel. The anticipated low profitability in the face of the high cost of capital and land has brought industrialization to a standstill. As if this was not enough, the high utility costs have deprived the new budding entrepreneurs of any natural drive to come up and take the risk, which is absolutely necessary to keep the country’s economic wheel moving.

These are merely a small fraction of the new government’s economic problems soon after assuming power. Considering the deep sense of frustration, helplessness, and vulnerability among the people at large, the new government would find it difficult to undertake long-term structural economic reforms, which are generally viewed as nothing but diktats of the IMF. This perception is so strong that the dire need to undertake such reforms is often overlooked in the country. Political instability forces the ruling party to indulge in political gimmicks and take steps even at the cost of the national economy. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to reduce petroleum prices just after a no-confidence motion had been tabled against him remains the most recent example in this regard. This seemingly “people-friendly step” derailed the IMF program and ultimately caused irreparable damage to the national economy. The government later had to increase petroleum prices after a massive fiscal imbalance that pushed the country to the verge of economic default.

As political analysts and observers do not see a simple majority for any party in the election, it is difficult to understand how a coalition government will handle these problems sustainably. In an interview on 23 November, PPP Cochairman Asif Ali Zardari also hinted toward the possibility of forming a coalition government after the 8 February elections. This was perhaps Mr. Zardari’s key message to the powerful circles, which meant that any attempt to form a future government without the PPP’s participation would be a wild goose chase. Unfortunately, Mr. Zardari’s message did not get the due coverage because of his passing remark about Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s being an “untrained” politician, as analysts totally overlooked the possibility of its being a statement by a concerned and loving father.

Mr. Zardari’s comment further reinforces the fears that the next government will not be much different from the previous PDM government. This will be the worst thing that this unfortunate country can afford.

Meanwhile, the current political fragmentation is likely to get deeper amid the PTI’s allegations of not getting the level-playing field for the polls. Any unfavorable decision against PTI Chairman Imran Khan in the ongoing legal battle is bound to worsen the situation further. This is understandably a worrisome situation for all those who cherish democracy and want to find solutions to all economic problems within the system.

In the face of a multitude of economic and political problems, few analysts have already started talking about setting up a national or national unity government. Still, any hotchpotch setup of political parties with different manifestoes will not help address the challenges either.

It is extremely important that all political forces hold a grand national dialogue, decide the rules of the game for the upcoming elections and the post-election scenario, and reach a consensus on a charter of economy. The establishment should facilitate such a dialogue and subdue before the policy framework is finalized in the meeting. Political parties in Pakistan have been finding it difficult to align their political and economic policies for the privatization of state-owned enterprises, including power distribution companies, ensuring market-based rupee-dollar parity, formulating a strategy to meet foreign debt obligations, and maintaining twin deficits under control. These are some of the major irritants, but the little space they enjoy politically seldom allows them to draft economic policies per international standards. The urge to provide immediate relief to the people is natural. Still, the prevalent political instability can force economic managers to make compromises on economic stability. Ultimately, they generally end up losing on both growth and stability.

It would be naive to expect any weak coalition government to hold its ground and ensure economic growth without showing any laxity on the ongoing stabilization program by the IMF. The current state of the economy does not allow any adventure and calls for putting up a brave front against any political populism in the economic domain. This is, however, easier said than done. The economic hardships the people face are too pressing to be ignored. The need to offer them some relief cannot be overemphasized.

The next government would walk a tightrope to meet economic compulsions and people’s aspirations. The current setting on the political chessboard does not hold any promise to bring up a strong government or leadership to make rational and difficult decisions. No wonder the concerns about the post-election scenario have overshadowed the pre-election story-line.


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