The by-elections on 14 October 2018 were the early moment of truth for the ruling party. It indicates that the electorate is closely watching the confused handling of office shown by the newly-installed government and is a clear message to mend ways. Apparently the ruling party has made every effort to downplay the adverse results but indications are that the core group in the party is quite unnerved about the electoral reverse. The most worrying aspect for PTI is the very early, and to PTI stalwarts, an untimely resurgence of PMLN that it recently ousted from power.
The by-elections were quite a large affair as 11 National Assembly and 26 country-wide provincial assembly seats were up for grabs and the contest was widely seen as the preliminary test for Prime Minister Imran Khan who holds on to his office with a thin majority provided by his erstwhile opposing political parties. The by-elections were necessitated because many seats fell vacant that were earlier won by contestants fighting from more than one constituency with Imran Khan himself vacating four seats.
The polls saw PTI and PMLN bagging four seats each for the National Assembly losing its edge when seats vacated by the Premier were lost to opposition indicating that it was only his charisma that won these seats and that PTI had no contribution to it as a political group. PMLN’s success in unseating the Prime Minister from two seats has caused a widespread disenchantment in PTI’s ranks but has caused ripples of joy to PMLN supporters.
PTI appeared not very bothered about the campaign for by-elections and neither the PM nor important ministers canvassed for their candidates. Some observers, however, claim that the set-back is the direct outcome of widespread decline of Imran Khan’s popularity as he appears to be avoiding the limelight and looks crestfallen as if the burdens of office are much more than his capacity to deliver.
The vociferous election campaign slogan of change has fallen flat and the government is finding it difficult to come out of the financial bind that it inherited. It was very well known that the economic state of the country was perilous and PTI appeared very confident in tackling the difficult situation. However, it soon transpired that the new economy managers were clueless about the entirety of the ball-game and were found to be groping in dark.
The serious economic issues were sacrificed on the altar of populist austerity drive aimed at reducing government expenditure but even such measures were considered as nothing more than lip-service.
There appears to be no plan with the government to address intricate structural issues of economy as well as governance. The steps taken by the government have given rise to rampant inflation as gas prices have been heavily increased and fuel prices are about to go up. The citizenry is afraid of the upcoming increase in electricity tariff that already is very difficult to pay. Imran Khan is criticised for his populist stance in the past when he slammed previous rulers for ‘begging’ for international financial assistance but now is doing precisely the same. His government’s request to go to IMF for a financial bailout was also badly bungled giving way to rumours that the PM and his Finance Minister do not see eye to eye over the issue.
The government is seen following up the traditions it set as a political party in opposition for taking U-turns on almost every subject. The revised budget it presented was not even spared the iconic U-turn as the non-filers were initially given the favour so as to encourage economic activity but it was quickly withdrawn once severely criticised. The scheme for building 5 million houses is also ridiculed as it is not found feasible to undertake such heavy construction but the PM is insistent that he will be able to complete this task.
Nevertheless it is too early to evaluate the performance of the government but the portents of its wayward performance are getting clearer by the day. There is no immediate threat to the government but there is also not a great deal of hope in its sustenance. The opposition political parties are still smarting from their defeat though there are signs that they are coming together for making a joint stand. They are quite sure that not much effort would be required to desatbilise the government because its inefficiency will be enough to decisively harm it.
The Prime Minister has shown no signs of decisively tackling the national issues and he appears very conscious about the growing criticism. His aloofness is seen as a sign of lack of capacity giving way to an ongoing tussle between the political elements close to him fighting it off with the bureaucrats who have equally won his ear. Even his rectifying actions are mired in double-mindedness as he is seen swinging from one place to the other as happened in the case of his initially supporting the bureaucracy and then whimsically transferring the top policeman in Punjab whose affairs he is seen to be directing through remote control.