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August 28, 2018

A delicate balance


August 28, 2018

While we continue to squabble over the results of Election 2018, with each side trying to make its case for what went wrong and what didn’t and whether the PM’s speech was just tall on promises and short on specifics, I wonder if we have our eyes on the challenges ahead.

The mother of all challenges is the economy. Markets haven’t shown the kind of enthusiasm that was expected when new governments are sworn-in. Perhaps they have an idea of what lies ahead.

It goes beyond doubt that our economy requires assistance. The finance minister has already stated that we do, indeed, need a bailout package from the IMF – and that too a double-digit one. So, all talk of preferring suicide to going around with a begging bowl asking for loans to run our economy seems to have gone out the window. It is easier said than done. Welcome to the real world, PTI!

And what’s even more troubling about this real world is that it is unforgiving. Hard choices have to be made, which are equally hard to sell – especially when you have raised expectations and made promises that will be difficult to honour. Backbreaking conditions attached, restricted fiscal space to dole out money on public spending, squeezing the already squeezed taxpayer, and undertaking a privatisation process by making thousands of people redundant will be hugely unpopular steps among the people. The opposition is just waiting. Expect no mercy.

It is a no-brainer that our economic challenges are intertwined with foreign policy this time around. With the trade war between China and the US at its peak, both sides imposing retaliatory tariffs on each other. Our economy could very well become another battleground for the two powers. And this is the trickiest part. Pompeo’s remarks regarding IMF bailouts being used to pay off Chinese loans shouldn’t be taken lightly.

While the finance minister would be running from pillar to post to get the bailout package that is desperately required, a large number of concessions would have to be made on the foreign policy front. If a Foreign Office can’t handle a phone call, how it will handle the delicate balance between competing superpowers on our turf?

“Despite having sacrificed thousands of lives in [the war on terror], Pakistan is considered [to be] part of the problem rather than part of the solution,” said Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in his maiden speech in parliament. “While this narrative is deeply hurtful, we must have the courage to look within”.

Do we have that courage? We must have the courage to accept our past mistakes and correct them because Pakistan’s international isolation is connected to looking within. Being placed on the FATF’s grey list should have been yet another wake-up call. But the move failed to ruffle any feathers. Since we have been in this position before, the prevalent attitude was that being placed on the anti-terror finance watchdog’s grey list was no big deal. The mainstreaming mantra continues and the IRA’s example has also been quoted. We tend to ignore the fact that none of the political forces have been taken onboard.

Deweaponisation is a legitimate concern. Are Deobandis being counterbalanced by the Barelvi lot? Haven’t we learned anything from the past? The genie of sectarianism or ethnicity should never be let out, no matter how attractive the gains may be. Let’s add to this our regional concerns. So, we can’t expect an easy bailout.

And while all of this is happening, another narrative is taking shape. Doesn’t it worry anyone that political parties like the ANP and the JUI-F are raising the same kind of slogans that have only been heard recently from certain rights movements?

The PML-N’s anti-establishment narrative is already well-known. It was quite difficult for the PPP to convince PML-N leaders to use parliament as a forum to raise and register their concerns. This narrative is already resonating – from KP to Punjab where the PML-N is still a potent force. The missing link is the PPP. How long will it be possible for us to act as a buffer for the sake of democracy and the system?

The writer is a senator and lawyer.

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