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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Pakistan Slips Deeper into Political, Economic and Energy Crisis

By Jay Rover

The power shutdown came at a time when Pakistan is passing through the worst economic and political crises of its history. (Photo courtesy Pakistan Today)

A nationwide power outage on January 23 left bare Pakistan’s ongoing governance, political and economic crisis even more. The outage spread panic and raised questions about the cash-strapped military-installed puppet government’s handling of the country’s financial and crippling energy crisis. Life came to a virtual standstill from Karachi to Peshawar in a nation of more than 220 million.

It all started when in order to conserve the country’s rapidly-dwindling fuel supplies, electricity was turned off during low usage hours overnight, leaving authorities unable to boot up the system all at once after daybreak. The country saw an identical massive outage in January 2021, attributed to a technical fault in the power generation and distribution system.

Energy Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan told the Geo News network that power units were switched off Sunday night, but when technicians tried to turn the system back on at dawn, the network failed. Angry citizens blamed the government for the outage and accused it of being inept and incompetent. Many areas in Karachi and other cities ran out of water because water could not be pumped to buildings, especially to the high-rise residences.

The power was gradually restored hours after the outage started. Dastgir said, more than 12 hours after the breakdown occurred, that officials had begun restoring electricity across the country. The blackout highlighted Pakistan’s tattering energy infrastructure, which is already in the midst of an economic crisis driven by overwhelming national debt and depleted foreign cash reserves. Pakistan has made little investment in its aging power distribution infrastructure which not only leads to outages but also unacceptably high line losses.

Production at many factories in the country’s industrial hubs such as Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad etc., cost the already tanked economy tens of millions of dollars in lost production. Many economists, contrary to government denials, insist that the country has technically defaulted.

The business community has been complaining for the past several weeks that banks are unable to open their LCs for imports. Thousands of containers are stuck at Karachi and Gwadar ports because of the foreign currency crunch.  The country is facing a serious foreign currency crisis.  US dollar and other foreign currencies are hard to find in the open market while its foreign exchange reserves have touched an abysmal 4.3 billion dollars, enough for less than four weeks of imports.

Political crisis worsening economic crisis 

Pakistan’s economic collapse is being blamed on the flawed economic policies of the Shahbaz Sharif government, increasing political confrontation, and the military’s ever-increasing interference in politics. Former prime minister Imran Khan’s government was brought down through a controversial no-confidence motion last April. Khan accuses the military of being involved in the conspiracy to bring his government down.

Khan, who is demanding early elections and has escaped an assassination attempt, has dissolved two of the country’s provincial assemblies, where his party had the majority to force early elections. Under the law, the ruling and opposition parties decide a caretaker chief minister’s name through mutual consultation and if they fail, the country’s chief election commissioner has the last word. He announces the chief minister and even the caretaker prime minister. A caretaker government is bound by law to hold free and fair elections within 90 days after its appointment.

The country’s Chief Election Commissioner Sikander Sultan announced the appointment of Mohsin Raza Naqvi, a media personality who runs television channels known for their editorial partiality, as the caretaker chief minister of the Punjab province. No controversy was seen in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa where a former bureaucrat known for his honesty, was appointed as acting chief minister. Naqvi is known for his close relations with Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan’s military. His appointment is being branded as part of Pakistani establishment’s efforts to prove yet again that it is in no mood to facilitate free and fair elections.

Many Pakistani analysts insist that the military is maneuvering to make sure Khan does not win a majority in the parliament in the next elections. All public opinion polls show Khan’s party enjoying massive popularity amongst the voters and will easily win majority in the parliament if the elections are free and fair.

Khan has announced protests against Naqvi’s appointment and wants to move court against him, insisting a fair election under him will not be possible. Naqvi was among a select group of civilians who accompanied the country’s new army chief during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia.

An election under Naqvi’s watch in Punjab will be seen by many as a political contest between the 14-party alliance of Sharif government, a partial caretaker setup, a partial election commission and the military on the one side and Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf and the Pakistani nation on the other.

If elections are not held and a caretaker setup is allowed to continue, it is bound to cause more political instability and cause more economic crises.

Strange developments

Pakistan is a strange country. Its spineless corrupt-to-the-core judiciary rewards killers, looters, and thieves who have killed innocent people or who are accused of being involved in corruption of billions of rupees while it cannot act on a former prime minister’s plea to nominate a serving general in the first information report he wants to register in the case of attempt on his life last November.

In the latest shameful decision on January 23, a court in Karachi acquitted Senior Superintendent of Police Rao Anwar, a close confidant of former president and Pakistan People’s Party leader Asif Ali Zardari, in the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebuullah Mehsud.

The killing of Mehsud, an aspiring model from South Waziristan residing in Karachi, stormed social media with public outcry and sparked countrywide protests by civil society against the state’s failure to arrest the former SSP and his team.

In the detailed verdict released later, and reported by Dawn.com, the judge said: “I am of the considered view that the prosecution since has failed to bring home guilt of the accused beyond any reasonable doubt and for giving benefit of doubt to an accused it is not necessary that there should be many circumstances creating doubt. One single circumstance leading towards the real doubt is sufficient to acquit the accused.”

But the verdict received widespread condemnation, with many calling it murder of justice. The acquittal of Anwar was condemned among others by Mohsin Dawar, a shady political character with questionable credentials and known for his close relations with Zardari and the military.

“The acquittal of Rao Anwar and others involved in the cold-blooded murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud is beyond shameful. No justice for innocent Pashtuns killed by state-sponsored killers. The proceedings and the verdict in Naqeeb’s case are a travesty of justice,” he wrote in a tweet. But he received instant rebukes from many of Twitter users.

“No matter what the generals do through their stooges in Sindh, Punjab or elsewhere, they will be defeated by the people of Pakistan. They cannot conquer Pakistan this time,” said an angry supporter of Khan in New York, adding that Pakistan’s military has not changed an inch under the new army chief. “Bajwa doctrine still reigns and Pakistan is still reeling under its devastating effects,” he added. “The generals and their stooges have already lost it in people’s court,” he concluded.

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