FeaturedNationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 7

2023 – A roller coaster year for Pakistan

2023 was a difficult year for Pakistan. The country faced major challenges both in the political and economic spheres. Security problems were also a dominant issue during the year. It was a year full of uncertainties and doubts about the future shape of things.

Political instability and polarization kept the people on tenterhooks. As per the constitutional provisions, elections were supposed to take place in November 2023 but had to be postponed to allow time for redrawing the constituencies based on the new census. Whether general elections would be held on time was a big question mark through the year until the announcement of a firm date and election schedule under the Supreme Court’s order. This put an end to uncertainty about the election date but not how fair and free the polls would be.

The year saw the country narrowly escaping default thanks to timely help from China and our Mideast friends and a bailout deal with the IMF. Economic mismanagement exemplified by a change of finance minister early in PDM’s tenure compounded the worst economic crisis in Pakistan’s history. But the economy is still in dire straits because our economic fundamentals are all in a negative zone. Without structural changes and learning to live within our means, the economy will continue to teeter on the brink and inflationary pressures will further intensify.

The number of militant attacks by TTP and allied groups went up sharply since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021. This was accompanied by a sharp deterioration in the bilateral ties with Afghanistan. At the heart of the problem is the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which Pakistan says operates from the neighboring country with impunity. Despite repeated reminders Kabul has not taken any action against the TTP. The message from Kabul is loud and clear: its tough attitude in the matter is not going to change. Islamabad’s patience is wearing thin and its remains to be seen how it manages its relations with a difficult neighbor.

The PDM’s record in governance during its 16 months in office was dismal. The 13-party coalition government with a bloated cabinet — the largest in the country’s history – flip-flopped badly and grossly mismanaged the affairs of the state, making life miserable for the common man. The first half of the year saw the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement coalition engage in countering the rising popularity of PTI chief Imran Khan and putting down protests by his party in a politically charged atmosphere.

The year saw worsening relations between Imran Khan and the military establishment. When violent protests broke out on May 9 over his arrest, PTI supporters attacked army installations and government buildings. This led to countrywide crackdown against PTI leaders and activists, many of whom are either in jail or absconding.

In August, Imran Khan was arrested following his conviction by the Islamabad High Court in a corruption case involving the illegal sale of state gifts. The conviction banned Imran Khan from contesting elections and holding public office for five years. The year also saw the government using force to stop PTI supporters from holding rallies and public meetings, raising questions about  the fairness of the coming polls, especially as the party has been deprived of its electoral symbol ‘bat’ by the ECP. The matter has now been taken to the court. At the same time a ‘new’ party was launched by Jahangir Khan Tareen with the tacit backing from the powers that be. The Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party comprises mostly deserters from the PTI but it has found little public acceptability.

A major political development of 2023 was the return of Nawaz Sharif from self-exile. Having secured favourable court verdicts in various cases in which he had been convicted, he is set to make a fourth bid for prime ministership. But, according to political observers, there are many a slip between the cup and the lip as the PML-N faces internal rifts as well as a stiff challenge from the PPP and other parties with whom seat adjustment issues are yet to be resolved.

In foreign affairs, Pakistan succeeded in improving relations with the US as well as European countries while further consolidating ties with time-tested friend China. Despite Pakistan’s efforts, New Delhi did not change its truculent attitude regarding the stalled peace process and finding a just solution to the Kashmir dispute.

2024 is going to be a crucial year for Pakistan, both politically and economically. The way the upcoming general elections are conducted will determine whether political stability will return to Pakistan. As for economic stability, it cannot be achieved without fundamental structural reforms, including dismantling of a patronage based system under which a small minority thrives at the cost of the well-being of the vast majority.