Dec 29

Good, Bad & Ugly

Posted on Friday, December 29, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Good, Bad & Ugly

The outlook for 2018 is smoggy. There are lots of ifs and buts. The challenge is to find effective and speedy solutions of running conflicts in state and society in the larger national interest without any major upheaval.

GOOD: Despite the political upheaval related to the ouster of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister and the attendant conspiracies to force an early election or delay it, the political parties have made common cause by passing the Delimitation Bill in the Senate and paving the way for the Election Commission to start preparations for general elections in 2018. Equally, attempts to trigger defections in the PMLN to dislodge it from office have been forestalled by Nawaz Sharif’s ability and resolve to fight back in the public arena which is the ultimate arbiter in a democracy.

The slide of the economy, as manifested by a sudden and significant depreciation of the rupee, occasioned by the shoddy exit of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, has been halted with the appointment of Miftah Ismail, a clean-cut technocrat, as de facto finance minister. This increases the likelihood of FY2017-18 targets not being missed by much. The efforts of the Punjab and Federal government to continue apace with development and CPEC projects are also forecast to stay on line barring any major political upheaval.

No less significant in stabilizing polity is the announcement from the House of Sharifs that Shehbaz Sharif, a Miltablishment favourite, will be the PMLN’s candidate for PMship if it wins the next elections.

There is good news too from military quarters. The army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has made a strong plea for moderation and tolerance in our religious faith, especially towards minorities. He has also vowed not to derail democracy, however flawed it may be, and shown his readiness for a candid dialogue with his civilian counterparts over all pertinent matters of national interest, including civil-military relations, to allay mutual fears and suspicions. His word counts and he seems sincere.

BAD: The troubles of a besieged “democracy” are far from over. Maulana Tahir ur Qadri is preparing, with support from the PPP and PTI, to mount a long march in January to precipitate military or judicial intervention to dislodge both PMLN governments before the Senate elections which the PMLN is expected win. Considering the PMLN’s abject inability to handle a small dharna, like the one launched by a sectarian group last month, without help from the military, this dharna will be the litmus test of whether or not the next elections will be held on time in a free and fair manner.

Under the circumstances, if the Qadri dharna succeeds, the ensuing uncertainty will take a deep toll of the economy, with consequential hardship across all sections of state and society. Certainly, foreign investment and development projects will come to a grinding halt and flight of capital will lead to a further devaluation of the rupee, with resultant inflationary pressures.

The outlook for foreign relations is worse. The developing axis of US-India-Afghanistan is expected to adopt a tougher stance against Pakistan. Relations with neignbours India and Afghanistan are already bad. But relations with the US are forecast to deteriorate, creating difficulties for Pakistan. Top US officials, including the President, Vice President and Secretaries of Defense and State, have all publicly condemned Islamabad as being part of the problem rather than the solution for Afghanistan. Now the prominent New York Times has editorially held Pakistan’s military leadership responsible for the country’s travails. It seems as if the ground is being prepared for some sort of US intervention in the region that will put Pakistan on the spot. Should that happen, all hell will break loose inside Pakistan, with various groups and parties, especially militant religious ones, erupting on the streets and creating anarchy and mayhem. A weakening of the writ of the state would invite hostile neighbours to foment more trouble by encouraging separatism and extremism.

As if all this isn’t bad enough, Pakistanis will have to contend with the rising power of religious extremists to curtail the various freedoms they currently enjoy. The banding together of five religious parties to revive the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal is a sign of the times. The emergence of sectarian and jihadi organisations as electoral forces with street muscle is ominous – one has already succeeded in obtaining the resignation of a federal minister, while a second is demanding the resignation of another PMLN stalwart. The trend of “disappearances” of social media critics of the Miltablishment, no less than the practice of slapping charges of blasphemy against other liberal dissenters, is likely to increase rather than abate. The political and cultural space for “democracy” is fated to diminish regardless of whether or not the “electoral democracy” project is derailed altogether.

UGLY: Pakistan has never been as divided internally and isolated externally in the past as it is now. If its civil-military leadership jointly fails to fashion a credible way forward, 2018 could become an ugly year in the history of Pakistan.

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