Talks without compromising neutrality

Ansar Abbasi
Saturday, May 14, 2022

ISLAMABAD: Despite the bad blood between the government and opposition, the rapidly worsening economic situation can force the coalition government and the Imran Khan-led PTI to sit around a table under one roof to thrash out important issues.

Background interactions with key players show that elections in October could pave the way for a greater consensus between the government allies and the PTI on the all-important issue of the economy.

The economic situation in the country is of concern to all and there are clear indications that if corrective measures are not taken immediately, Pakistan could end up becoming another Sri Lanka.

While Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, along with his key party members, have been in London for the last three days pondering over key issues like the economy and elections, the Banigala resident also seems worried about the economic meltdown. One of his party’s key leaders confided to The News that he is not as rigid as he has been depicted by Shaikh Rashid.

“I can’t say it on the record but let me assure you, we are ready to discuss the upcoming elections and the economy,” the PTI leader said on condition of not being named. He said that barring hawkish elements within the PTI, including Dr Shireen Mazari and Fawad Chaudhry and the likes of Shaikh Rashid, there are PTI leaders who are in favour of a negotiated settlement of the present political crisis to save Pakistan from economic collapse.

The ruling coalition is also in a fix because of the extremely difficult choices it has in hand with a high political price to pay in order to put right the economy, which is on the verge of collapse because of the fast-depleting foreign exchange reserves. A huge subsidy on oil products is the only way to become part of an IMF programme without which Pakistan cannot avoid default.

Withdrawing the oil subsidy would mean a huge price hike, which is the most difficult choice for all the ruling allies, more so for the PML-N, which has the prime minister and all economic ministries. There is a division within the PML-N as well as among the allies on the issue of passing on the burden of high oil prices to the masses by withdrawing the subsidy, which amounts to over Rs 100 billion a month. The government understands that it is caught between a devil and the deep blue sea like situation; if you don't withdraw the subsidy, a default is imminent, but if you withdraw it the result would be a huge price hike and a public outcry.

With huge pressure on him to take tough economic decisions, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif rushed to London along with a few key PML-N leaders to discuss elections. Sources said that Shehbaz Sharif went to London with the “options” of whether to dissolve the national assembly in the third week of this month or in July-August this year to pave the way for elections in October.

The London huddle, which is continuing for the third consecutive day, is squarely focused on both the elections and the economy. The PML-N will announce its economic plan of action but the timing of the holding of the next elections -- no matter what the PML-N decides -- is not in the hands of any one party. The political and economic situation will decide the timing of the elections.

However, elections in October can suit both sides. The Election Commission of Pakistan has already said that the polls are not possible before October this year. The PTI sources said that the party will agree to elections in October. This will also allow the ruling coalition to conduct the required reforms in the next couple of months before the dissolution of the national assembly, possibly in July.

Since the economic situation has become the major concern, there is an urgent need to make the two sides sit together under one roof to thrash out a consensus economic policy. The challenge, however, is who should be the facilitator to make such talks possible. No one other than the establishment can do this without compromising its neutrality.