Winter of discontent ahead -DAWN

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LAST week’s joint parliamentary session once again laid bare the non-consensual democracy in operation today, thanks to the ruling party that continues to act unilaterally. The PTI government’s insistence on pushing through an amendment to the Elections Act 2017 to provide for electronic voting machines (EVMs), in disregard of objections from the combined opposition and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) predictably produced chaotic scenes in parliament. The opposition too brought little credit to itself by its conduct. It had every right to reject the amendment, but tearing up agenda papers, shouting down the Speaker and staging a walkout was unnecessary.

The treasury benches got their way by bulldozing the electoral reforms bill. But it marks a pyrrhic victory. When a significant membership of parliament opposed the move, the amendment lacks both consensus and legitimacy. As its practicality is also in doubt its implementation in the near term is open to question.

The government has long wanted parliamentary approval for EVMs. Having secured this, formidable hurdles lie ahead. The ECP has already pointed to challenges in instituting this for the next election, now less than two years away. There are issues of capacity, acquiring a yet to be determined number of machines, training personnel and funding this huge enterprise. Thus, simply pushing through a bill does not mean the ECP can easily execute this. More so as EVMs have not even been tested on a limited scale, for example in by-elections over the last year. This also applies to granting the right to vote by internet to overseas Pakistanis. Arrangements for this too will be complex and again, it will be up to the ECP to determine when and how it will be able to implement this.

Meanwhile, the Speaker’s role in helping the ruling party force a number of other bills, over 30 of them through the joint session — without debate or deliberation — was not only unprecedented but also damaged the credibility of an office that is obliged to stay neutral. Never before were a record number of bills read out in such a rapid-fire manner and then declared adopted by the Speaker after voice votes. This has gravely undermined parliament’s role.

The government faces trouble if it continues in hubristic mode and doesn’t address pressing challenges.

The political energy the government expended on this move at a time when there are more consequential challenges that merit urgent attention is baffling. Not only does it speak of official priorities being out of sync with public expectations but it also underlines how out of touch the ruling party seems to be with opinion on the ‘street’. Public opinion is being shaped today by rising economic discontent as inflation bites and gas ‘load-shedding’ compounds public hardship with winter approaching.

Sensing how vulnerable the government is on this score the opposition has been mounting pressure with countrywide protests. Meanwhile, the PTI government’s relations with the establishment remain strained as frustration grows with its lack of governance. Future support to ‘bail out’ the government is therefore hardly assured. This fraught environment will invite more trouble if government leaders don’t take these varied challenges seriously and continue business as usual in their characteristic hubristic mode.

Confronted with these problems the government still decided to press ahead with laws that obviously do nothing to relieve growing public and political pressure. If anything, the coercive manner of its parliamentary move has left the country more politically polarised and the opposition even more adamant in mobilising people against the government.

The government’s most immediate challenge is the economic situation which has imposed such suffering on people as they confront soaring prices and shortages of essential services and commodities. While the government’s economic managers have been holding out the promise of ‘good news’ there is little to suggest that the dire scenario will change for people in any significant way. Resumption of the IMF programme and securing the next tranche is of course necessary to avert a financial crisis. But it will offer little to cheer for people whose cost of living is skyrocketing. Worse, shortages of essential daily-use commodities — which reflect official mismanagement — are also reinforcing public discontent with the government. For their part, official spokesmen have been shirking responsibility for the economic situation, blaming it on predecessor governments and offering hackneyed explanations about ‘mafias’ causing shortages.

As the near-term prospect for improvement in economic conditions and easing in inflation remains grim, this should urge the government to at least seek to defuse political fronts and close others which it has itself gratuitously opened. True it was able to cajole unhappy coalition partners to vote for the amendments but that hardly means it has removed their grievances. In fact, this only reinforced a familiar pattern of government leaders reaching out to allies at a time of urgent need but not paying any attention to them on an ongoing basis or meeting their demands. This suggests that the task of reconciling coalition partners will need the government’s constant attention.

This is important given that dissent among political allies was so vocally expressed before the parliamentary session. A key ally even threatened to part ways with the government. Even if coalition partners ultimately fell in line to support the government’s legislation that doesn’t detract from the reality that most of them are now seeking to distance themselves from the PTI with an eye on the general election. That itself reflects their reading that the ruling party is losing public ground and their association with it is becoming a political liability.

The PTI government’s triumphal stance after securing the electoral reforms legislation may in fact blindside it to the need to address more pressing economic and political challenges. This of course would be a costly mistake. But its tendency to divert attention from these challenges by blaming either the opposition or ‘mafias’ for the country’s problems indicates that it will continue with such tactics. This would mean minimising what growing economic discontent can morph into especially with a desperate opposition whipping up public sentiment against the government. Navigating a winter of discontent requires a consensual political approach which so far, has eluded the government.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.