FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 24

No early election?

In its London meeting, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has decided not to hold early elections. The decision reflects the confidence of the government and its coalition partners to weather the storm of worsening economic indicators and ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan’s march on Islamabad scheduled for later this month.

However, the decision of the ruling coalition partners not to hold early elections is fraught with risks. The new government is weak and it is not in a position to take bold decisions to improve the economy and provide immediate relief to people from high inflation. Instead, it immediately needs to hike the power tariff and fuel prices to check the rising current account deficit. On the other hand, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has asked Pakistan to take a number of steps to do away with subsidies extended by the previous government, including raising the fuel price and power tariff, to revive its Extended Fund Facility (EFF). As the new government desperately seeks to revive the $6b package, the IMF has set a series of prior conditions involving steep fiscal adjustment close to Rs1.3 trillion. The IMF wants fuel prices increased to breakeven and taxes restored, the amnesty scheme for industries discontinued, circular debt reduced and fiscal savings ensured in order to completely reverse the Feb 28 relief package.

To compound problems for the new government, the IMF has demanded that Pakistan fix the next fiscal year’s tax collection target at Rs7.25 trillion, which will require the imposition of additional taxes of around Rs300 billion, including withdrawal of agriculture tax exemptions and increase in the burden on the salaried class. The target is nearly Rs350 billion higher than what tax authorities believe can be generated in the fiscal year 2022-23 without imposing new taxes. The Rs7.25 trillion tax collection target will be Rs1.15 trillion, or 19%, higher than this year’s revised target of Rs6.1 trillion.

The new government has not been able to hike fuel prices and the power tariff despite its utmost desire, because it believes the harsh steps will make it unpopular immediately and if new elections are called or it was forced to call in a few months under pressure from Imran Khan, it will be difficult for it to compete against him.

On the other hand, Imran Khan’s narrative that the new government has been imposed on Pakistan through a US-backed conspiracy is gaining popularity. He is leading huge public rallies. In Pakistan, people used to distribute sweets after the ouster of a Prime Minister in the past. Imran Khan is the first Prime Minister in Pakistan’s history, who has been removed through a no-confidence motion. Nobody thought he would become so popular overnight. He plans to bring more that 2m people to Islamabad to lock it down. He also plans to block all major cities, until his demand for early elections was accepted. However, no government in the recent past could be ousted through protests. It will be a real test of the government and its coalition partners if he starts his sit-in at Islamabad. However, it will also be interesting to see how he reacts if he forces early elections and then loses.

In the current situation, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and its leaders are most comfortable. Its leaders are enjoying an intense fight between the PTI and the PML-N. According to media reports, the PPP has joined the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on the condition that the PML-N would support its 20 candidates for National Assembly seats and 40 candidates for Punjab Assembly seats in Punjab in the next election. The PML-N has reached a similar agreement with a religious party. Reportedly, the PPP and the PML-N have also reached an understanding to make PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2028.

According to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, he has received guarantees that Imran Khan will not be able pose any threat to his party in the next election. He is confident that his party will sweep the next year’s election. His decision not to hold early elections shows his confidence that he no longer considers Imran Khan a threat to his party or its coalition partners. He also believes Imran Khan will not be able to force early elections through his march or sit-in. It also proves his confidence that his government will not become unpopular even if takes some harsh measures to improve the economy.

On the other hand, stakes are heavily loaded against Imran Khan in the present system. He has annoyed many institutions through his slur. But he still believes he will win the next elections by a two-thirds majority. He was removed when his popularity was waning after bad governance and high inflation. His party would have been eliminated in the next polls if he was allowed to complete his term. Those who have removed him would also have calculated all risks and benefits.

Many experts also foresee a comfortable victory for him in the next election. However, they forget the reality that he was not less popular in the last election but managed to win only a razor-thin majority in the Centre and Punjab. Pakistan’s history also proves that no ousted government could return to power in the next election. Pakistan’s political conditions have never been more hostile to him and more favourable to all other parties. In fact, he lacks essential qualities which are required by Pakistani politicians. He should realise that Pakistan needs pragmatic, committed, patriotic and honest leaders, like Nawaz Sharif, Shehbaz Sharif, Asif Zardari, and all others, who are presently in the coalition government.