Winds of change? – Fahd Hussain

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THE capital is humming with subdued excitement as it awaits the unveiling of the new Imran Khan cabinet. The feverish jockeying for seats on the high table is a spectacle to behold as the merry-go-round of power politics swirls around with the momentum of anticipation.

But this frenzy for the spoils of power disguises a deep angst thrumming inside the exhausted soul of the ruling PTI. It manifests itself in a nagging realisation that the problems afflicting the government require solutions far greater, and deeper, than a mere cabinet reshuffle. Could the new cabinet — flush with fresh faces and fresher enthusiasm — fuel a renewed effort by the government to delve deeper into the real afflictions of governance and find a cure before the next general elections?

For this to happen, the PTI ruling coalition, and especially its top leadership, will need to recognise and acknowledge that these problems actually exist on the ground, not just in the imagination of its critics. At the midway point in its five year term, as Prime Minister Imran Khan readies for the final overs with his new team, he may want to consider the following five key areas that require urgent attention for ‘real change’ to happen.

1. Legitimacy: A key factor for quasi-constant inst­a­bility today is the issue of legitimacy that hounds the government as well as the process that led to the formation of the government. The problem precedes the PTI’s stint in power, but one of the most important priorities of PTI was its promise to cleanse the system of manipulations. Almost 32 months into its 60 months mandate, the PTI has been unable to sol­ve this riddle of legitimacy. In fact, it may have compounded it in its hunger to pulverise its rivals. Fixing the electoral system before the next general elections is therefore the only way that the fundamental issue of legitimacy can be put to rest. Given how the PTI government in Punjab resorted to blatant manipulation in the Daska NA-75 bypoll, the last thing that the ruling party should be doing at this stage is pretending to occupy the high moral ground.

2. Performance: This particular by-product of politics in Pakistan used to be tangential in the greater scheme of traditional things. Then Shehbaz Sharif happened and governance was never the same again. Well, almost. With PTI gaining traction after 2011, performance and delivery as key harbingers of change became central tenets of PTI’s soaring rhetoric. They sold the electorate dreams that they would fix this broken system and deliver performance that would usher in deep structural improvement. PTI weaponised the concept of performance and whetted the appetite of citizens thirsting for genuine and meaningful service delivery. This fact alone makes it especially ironic that the PTI government has stumbled on the one platform that had once elevated it. Why has the PTI not been able to deliver the performance it had promised? Until the PTI leadership figures out this answer, cabinet reshuffles will amount to nothing more than rearranging the furniture.

Five key areas require urgent attention for ‘real change’ to happen

On the other hand, the electorate’s desire to see the government’s performance has risen significantly these last few years, which makes it a huge challenge for those parties who aim to replace the PTI in government after the next elections. The gap between what the citizens want and what the political parties are capable of delivering is widening dangerously.

3. Accountability: One reason the dragnet being thrown around Jahangir Tareen is not gaining traction is the flawed perception of accountability. It was this specific flaw in the system — skewed accountability targeting rivals while ignoring allies — which the PTI had promised to change. People voted for PTI because they were sick and tired of successive governments, both civil and military, using the selective application of law to suit their interests. This flaw went against the basic grain of democracy, and this is why the PTI’s promise resonated across a large swathe of Pakistani society. The change on this account since August 2018 is negligible, if that. The institutions of accountability have been unable to convince the voter that they are treating everyone the same. The government too has struggled with this narrative. If it really wants to ignite its original promise of across-the-board accountability, the PTI government will, for instance, have to haul up everyone within the sugar cartel for price manipulation and hoarding. Yes, even those who fly ministerial flags on their cars. Can it?

4. Institutional equilibrium: Parliament is the source of legitimacy for the government, and the wheel that churns the representative system to produce debate and legislation. It is today the weakest link within the larger institutional framework. In the next two years, can the PTI government transform the dysfunctionality of parliament into a vehicle for delivering deep structural reform? The debasement of parliament in the last two years may count as the gravest of failures witnessed in the post-2018 dispensation. Scarred by vitriol and acute partisanship, parliament today appears incapable of seeing a functional relationship between the treasury and the opposition benches. Can the PTI unshackle the chains of its own rhetoric and power up parliament in the next two years?

5. Stability: The root cause of almost all our problems today is the lack of stability in the political system. The PTI has tried its best to trample the opposition these last two years, delegitimise it in the eyes of the electorate and govern by bypassing the opposition altogether. It has not worked. Pakistan has reminded rulers time and again that it is not interested in being ruled by a one-man, one-party system. Perhaps the PTI forgot this lesson of history. Stability will require parties on both sides to accept the other’s legitimate role within the system and function accordingly. Can the PTI unlearn its wrong lessons and adjust its approach in the next two years?