FLIGHT FROM REALITY

The two greatest threats to Pakistan’s democratic consolidation come from a floundering economy and deepening voter cynicism that the coming election will bring any improvement in national conditions. Although the economic danger is of a different order and more consequential, stagnant politics can also undermine the country’s democracy. Leaders of the ruling coalition, however, seem less interested in addressing these risks than in casting an activist judiciary as the destabilising force.
The judiciary has often stepped into a vacuum created by weaknesses in the formal structures of executive accountability. It has been trying to anchorPakistan’s democracy in the rule of law. But the ruling party’s thinly-veiled attempts to portray the judiciary as a roadblock to governance has become a way to deflect public focus away from its own performance deficit. These efforts have also diverted attention from two factors integral to any functional democracy: a robust economy and public confidence in the political process. Today, the first is in the intensive care ward and the latter at its door.

Two integral factors of any functional democracy are : a robust economy and public confidence in the political process. Today, the first is in the intensive care ward and the latter at its door. The judiciary has often stepped into a vacuum created by weaknesses in the formal structures of executive accountability. It has been trying to anchor Pakistan’s democracy in the rule of law. But the ruling party’s thinly-veiled attempts to portray the judiciary as a roadblock to governance has become a way to deflect public focus away from its own performance deficit.

The PPP-led government has earned the dubious distinction of presiding over the longest consecutive period of consistently low economic growth and falling foreign and domestic investment. It is the first government to have double-digit inflation throughout its tenure. Foreign debt and domestic borrowing have also reached record levels in the last four years.
The signs that the flailing economy is in the danger zone are unmistakable. The fiscal deficit has hit its highest level since 2008 fuelled by heavy spending on energy subsidies and support for loss-making public utilities. The equivalent of $16 billion has been spent this way over the past four years, but without resolving the energy crisis. This alone is enough to sink the economy.
To finance the widening budget deficit the government has borrowed excessively from the State Bank and commercial banks. This disingenuous approach has pushed the country to the edge of an inescapable financial crisis. With no remedial measures in sight and elections around the corner, the most immediate threat is posed by the rapid weakening of the external account, as a result of the widening balance of payments deficit. This is steadily depleting the country’s foreign exchange reserves.
The present $10 billion in reserves are set to dwindle further by the first part of next year when more repayments are due on the $8 billion loan from the IMF contracted in 2008. Between now and next June, about $2.5 billion has to be paid to the Fund and a similar amount on other debt-servicing. With other sources of external financing unavailable, the growing trade and current account gap can only be financed by further drawing down reserves. A point of extreme vulnerability can be reached in the first quarter of 2013 when, unless external resources are raised, the country will face financial insolvency.
If the government has been singularly unsuccessful in averting the economic slide it has also failed to move the politics – by inspiring confidence that the political process is responsive to public needs. Instead public faith in political institutions has continued to decline. If the low voter turnout of 44 per cent in the last election – lowest in the region – wasn’t enough of a warning signal of public disillusionment with politics-as-usual, opinion polls since have recorded even higher levels of voter disenchantment. Those who win political office by a minority vote resting on a low turnout – as increasingly is the case – end up with weak representative credentials. This has implications for both the credibility and effectiveness of the representative system. These warning signs of declining public trust should be of concern to the country’s political leaders just as the grim economic indicators merit urgent attention. The danger of an economic breakdown and a meltdown of people’s faith in the electoral/ political process both spell trouble in different ways for democratic stability.
(Dr. Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US and the United Kingdom).
Source : Khaleej Times

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