Whatever else might be said about the current PTI government, it cannot be denied that its first few months in office have been wildly entertaining (albeit in morbid, dark kind of way). When the government’s representatives are not fulminating against their predecessors, loudly vowing to bring about all manner of radical change, they are hastily recanting their previous statements, flailing wildly as their clear incompetence and lack of a plan hits the brick wall of reality. Who cannot remember the Prime Minister’s vows that rivers of milk and honey would flow within the first hundred days of his tenure as he transformed Pakistan into an Islamic welfare state? Alarm bells should have perhaps started ringing when considering how the Prime Minister’s plan was to model a twenty-first century nation-state on a seventh century Middle Eastern city, just as alarms should have been blaring when the auctioning of seven cows procured by the previous government was trumpeted as a vital part of the plan to plug Pakistan’s current account deficit. Pakistan is no stranger to the absurd antics of an arguably irredeemable political class distinguished only by its venality and incompetence, but the PTI government has thus far managed the dubious feat of making the past look good. When people start pining for the ‘good old days’ of the PML-N and even PPP governments, something is amiss in the status quo.

There are several possible explanations for the PTI’s lacklustre performance in government. The first, trotted out most frequently by those observing the government’s travails, points towards the relative inexperience of the party and its leaders. The argument here is that as a party enjoying its first actual taste of power, the PTI and its members will take some time to learn the ropes, and that its early missteps are nothing more than birth pangs that will likely be forgotten as the government makes itself more comfortable wielding the levers of power. There is some merit to this view except for a few inconvenient facts; the PTI was in power in Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa for several years prior to the 2018 elections, had participated vociferously in the national and provincial assemblies and most importantly of all, have years in which to prepare for power as it campaigned across the length and breadth of the country. Governing a country of 220 million people is not meant to be a walk in the park, nor is it a job that can simply be learnt on the go. To suggest that the PTI was not prepared to govern cannot be taken as anything other than a damning indictment of the party.

A second explanation, not too dissimilar to the first, acknowledges the missteps made by the PTI but attributes them to incompetence rather than inexperience. This line of reasoning suggests that despite having the best of intentions, the PTI simply lacks the capacity to formulate and implement policies that can help address the complex issues confronting Pakistan. How else, the argument goes, can one explain the government’s endorsement of the Chief Justice’s questionable plan to crowdfund the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha dam? Or the dogged belief that the Chinese government would bend over backwards to completely renegotiate the terms of CPEC? Or even the continued insistence, eventually prompting one of the Prime Minister’s infamous U-turns, that the country would never have to go to the IMF? The problem here is not that the government changes its mind, which is something that should be welcomed if changing circumstances prompt the decision to go in a new direction; what is troubling is that the PTI should have seen all of this coming and should have understood that the overblown rhetoric of its campaign would not necessarily translate into policy. That slogans could be mistaken for policy in the first place is what is truly troubling.

A more cynical view of the PTI might also suggest that the party’s problem is neither inexperience nor incompetence but, rather, a lack of concern about anything beyond its image and its optics. As has been discussed in this space before, the government’s continued reliance on empty stunts and gimmicks in the place of concrete action, and its unending use of campaign rhetoric to castigate and silence its political opponents, could be interpreted as a recognition of how, like other populist governments around the world, the PTI needs only to keep its base energised to remain in power. In a time of echo chambers on the internet and hyper-partisan media houses fuelling the spread of fake news and propaganda, it is easy to see how the PTI (and indeed any other party) might be tempted to rely on propaganda to reinforce its hold on power. As evidence from around the world currently shows, this tactic seems to be working, although it remains to be seen if it can continue to sustain the PTI’s momentum in the years to come.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is necessary to recognise the structural conditions both underpinning and constraining the PTI government. As a populist party that came to power on the basis of bombastic rhetoric and the co-optation of traditional political elites the PTI, like Pakistan’s other mainstream parties, can hardly be considered to be ideological, let alone progressive. That the PTI has resorted to aping its predecessors, particularly when it comes to questions of economic policy, is hardly surprising in this context. Matters are made worse by the not entirely unreasonable suspicion that the party’s ties to the establishment, which were arguably instrumental in bringing it to power, further limit its ability to actually act on any radical impulses it might have. Further evidence for the party being constrained by its own contradictions comes from its response to the TLP, first promising to strike out against it before capitulating to it, releasing its activists who had been arrested for engaging in violence, and then blaming the opposition parties for the disturbances that accompanied the dharnas last week. Again, this is not conduct that should be surprising given how the PTI actively campaigned on religion and blasphemy to come to power.

Inexperience, incompetence, Insouciance, and inability, all are potential explanations for the PTI’s visible lack of performance in power. That the country may have to be subjected to almost five more years of this is a depressing thought.


The writer is an assistant professor

of political science at LUMS.