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The players change the game doesn’t

by Muhammad Ragheeb-ud-din
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The events of past week have made clear the direction in which Pakistani politics is heading in the times to come with major consequences for politicians, citizens and businesses. Firstly the chairman of Pakistan-Tehreek-Insaf has been sentenced to jail for three years and disqualified from holding political office for next five. He has been stripped of his position as head of party by court much like Nawaz Sharif when he was disqualified by Supreme Court thus setting a legal precedent for all future Prime ministers of Pakistan. The verdict issued by judiciary on behest of establishment and Mr. Khan has now come back to haunt the PTI chief. Mr. Khan fell out of favor with the establishment in April last year due to a long tussle with then army chief Bajwa over various matters. His removal via a vote of no confidence dented his political aspirations but it was a flurry of bad decisions such as dissolving provincial assemblies, false belief of his popularity amongst military ranks and the events of 9th May that eventually led to his downfall. His party has been completely broken with more than 300 former MPA/MNA/Senators and ticket holders having left it in the past three months. This was followed by blanket media ban and tis verdict serves as the final step in ensuring he will have no role to play for at least the next few years. Whenever Elections are held it will be the current coalition parties, “Electable” and disgruntled PTI members who will form government. It is also quite clear that the establishment after its experiment with Mr. Khan has decided to desist from any such adventures in the future for now instead relying on existing political players only.

The council of common interest has also ratified the latest census results and now new delineations will have to be created on the basis of which the next elections will be held. Provisional results had made it seem that seat allocation to provinces for national assembly will have to be changed since a 65% jump in Baluchistan population was reported. This meant that 9 seats would have to be transferred from Punjab to Baluchistan which would impact who forms government in the center. However the latest results show that population increase for all provinces is largely similar and the seat composition will remain same as in 2017 with 266 seats in total after removal of six seats allotted to FATA post-merger. Another implication of this ratification is that general election will now be held in March 2024 rather than November 2023 since the Election commission requires at least four to five months to create new delineations. The national assembly will be dissolved on 9th august 2023 which means that, much like Punjab and KPK, the caretaker setup that will emerge will go beyond the mandated 60 to 90 days as per the constitution. The powers of this caretaker setup have also been extended via amendment in the election act article 230 which will allow it to take important economic decisions, establish treaties with foreign governments and bodies and make appointments thus granting it similar powers as an elected government.

The national assembly has also passed dozens of bills in its waning days sometimes without quorum displaying the haste with which the current setup is both disposing of its own affairs as well as those of the establishment before a longer than usual caretaker setup ensues. The national assembly firstly cleared private bills of several universities in a single day spreading rumors that bribes were being taken by MNA’s for passing bills given the lack of any debate on the subject. These universities don’t have approval from HEC meaning their degrees will not be acceptable abroad nor in Pakistan which highlights the nexus between private universities and lawmakers. Secondly amendments have been made to official secrets act as well as passing amendments in army act 1952 which now allow agencies to raid and detain without any warrant any citizen of Pakistan as well as sentence those critical of establishment to 5 years in prison for any criticism against it. A bill calling for creation of regulatory authority for social media sites and accounts has also been passed as well as law making it mandatory for these companies to shift their data centers to Pakistan so that government can have access to citizen’s private data. This move is being done to ensure criticism of establishment via social media is also silenced and much like mainstream media being controlled via PEMRA the narrative on such sites can also be managed.

Lastly the creation of a sovereign wealth fund as well as Special investment facilitation council (SFIC) are two major steps that will have major implications for the economy. Via the wealth fund government will offer shares and management control in public enterprises to investors from UAE, Saudi Arabia and China amongst others in exchange for foreign currency inflows via investment. To make the valuation of companies more attractive circular debt of such enterprises will be paid off by government before offering sale of shares. Via the SFIC investment incorporate farming, defence production and export related industry will be encouraged under the watchful eye of the military so that foreign investors don’t face any bureaucracy or legal hurdles nor suffer from shifts in policy of civil governments. Projects under SFIC will be exempt from investigation and legal challenges as well thus ensuring their smooth but opaque operation.

Moving forward it appears that space for civil liberties will all but shrink with the establishment now enjoying direct control of government, economy, politics and media at all levels with little wiggle room for political players. A form of government much like those formed after government of India act 1935 seems to be the future of Pakistan and the hard won space for political parties post 2008 seems to have vanished once more. Time will tell if it can be reclaimed again or will the Hybrid model of governance be the new normal as it has been since 2018.

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