The year in retrospect
As 2018 draws to a close, it may be instructive to cast a glance back at the major events and trends that characterised a year full of surprises, unexpected developments and worrying outcomes. US President Donald Trump kicked off the new year with a castigation of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, a complaint that led to the suspension of all aid from Washington. However, towards the end of the year, both the tone and attitude of Washington changed from hostile to seeking Islamabad’s help in pushing a peaceful resolution of the US’s longest running foreign war. On the eve of 2019, Trump announced a total troop withdrawal from Syria and a partial one from Afghanistan. Whether the latter move will assist the regional and international stakeholders in the Afghan conflict to arrive at a negotiated end to the war or may lead to a Taliban victory is still wrapped in uncertainty. Trump, never keen on the US’s foreign military engagements, acted so precipitately in arriving at his withdrawal decisions that he left allies, aides and the world gasping. The sudden and inexplicable decisions exacerbated the disarray in his administration with more departures, most prominently Secretary of Defence James Mattis.
On the domestic front, Pakistan saw PML-N leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif continuing to suffer legal troubles. As if his lifelong disqualification in the Panama case in 2017 was not enough, he had to face imprisonment along with his daughter Maryam Nawaz and son-in-law Safdar for 63 days earlier until the Islamabad High Court suspended the accountability court sentence pending the hearing of the Sharifs’ appeals. That however did not save him from a seven-year rigorous imprisonment sentence and fines of $ 25 million and Rs 1.5 billion in the Al-Azizia/Hill Metal Establishment reference, while being acquitted in the Flagship Investment case. Both decisions are likely to be appealed, the former by Nawaz, the latter by NAB. Meanwhile Nawaz will cool his heels in Kot Lakhpat Jail, Lahore. Shahbaz Sharif too remains in NAB custody facing various references. The accountability process seems poised to target Asif Zardari and Faryal Talpur next in the false bank accounts and other alleged corruption issues. If the Zardaris too go the way of the Sharifs, the vacuum of leadership at the helm of these two mainstream opposition parties, the PPP and the PML-N, may be filled by a collective leadership.
Perhaps even more significantly, the controversial 2018 general elections brought long standing aspirant Imran Khan to the prime minister’s chair. While the opposition demand for an examination of the fairness of the 2018 elections withers on the vine in a parliamentary committee yet to become functional, the PTI government faces formidable challenges, chief among which is the ailing economy. While Pakistan seems by now well placed regionally and internationally as having its image of a Taliban supporter in Afghanistan change to that of a peacemaker, it is the economy that in its first five months in office has proved a tougher nut to crack than the PTI imagined. The twin external and fiscal deficits still seem troublesome despite aid from friendly countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, China), with the unresolved IMF negotiations keeping the door to other international financial institutions closed. Even more worrying, if Adviser to Prime Minister on Commerce and Industry Razzak Dawood is to be believed, the government is only now beginning to get its head around the decades old creeping process of deindustrialisation that has put paid to the dream of a modern, prosperous economy. The government’s handling of the economy in these first five months revealed its team’s inexperience, a forgivable fact provided it put its head down and educated itself on the issues of and solutions to the economy’s travails.
While the jury is out on whether the PTI government has course corrected its handling of the economy, without which there would be profound implications for our society, the political landscape too suffers from uncertainty and polarisation because of the almost exclusively opposition-targeted accountability drive. The government’s spokesmen’s constant railing against the opposition on corruption allegations even before their cases have been decided has vitiated the atmosphere and cast doubts on the impartiality of the accountability regime. Last but not least, the legitimacy and credibility of the PTI government still carries the shadow of the military establishment-judiciary nexus perceived to be acting in its support against all other comers.