One year on,
expectations that Nawaz Sharif’s decisive electoral mandate would
translate into decisive governance have not been met. Instead, the prime
minister has opted for a risk-averse approach, procrastinated on
crucial security issues and economic reforms and appeared reluctant to
lead from the front.
This has already earned him strong public
disapproval. Only 10 percent of respondents saw Sharif as an effective
chief executive, according to an opinion survey of his first year’s
performance by Herald/SDPI. Almost three-fourths rated his record as "no
better than average".
Yet Mr Sharif started with advantages his
predecessor never enjoyed: a clear parliamentary majority, that freed
him from the paralysis of coalition politics, greater civilian authority
resulting from the rebalancing of power between state institutions, and
control of the largest province.
The regionalised outcome of the
2013 election, which left two provinces in opposition hands, and the
country without a national party, placed obvious constraints. But
Sharif’s commanding political position and a divided opposition gave him
the freedom to chart a bold, new course.
This meant taking tough
decisions urged by the country’s precarious security and economic
situation and creating early momentum for structural economic changes
and long-postponed institutional reforms.
But rather than move
sure-footedly in this direction Sharif started in a hesitant way. He did
not complete his cabinet and kept major portfolios himself, as if to
indicate he lacked a team. Nor were other key appointments made. By the
end of his first year, heads of most public sector enterprises were not
named, despite his pledge to restructure nonperforming entities to stop
their bleeding into the runaway budget deficit.
Where the prime
minister showed vigour was in launching ‘mega’ infrastructure projects
and populist ventures such as the metro-bus and youth business loan
scheme. This exposed a paradox – acting speedily on pet projects but
dithering on critical policy fronts such as structural reforms and
addressing the country’s fraught security situation including the
unsettled state of affairs in Balochistan.
The prime minister
made economic revival and solving the country’s crippling energy
shortages his two top priorities. This required tradeoffs and a
comprehensive strategy to simultaneously deal with the fragile balance
of payments and implement structural reforms to boost growth and
investment and build the foundation for economic viability.
government made progress in economic stabilisation by managing the
country’s tenuous external position and building foreign exchange
reserves. But it did this through external financing or borrowing, not
by seeking to transform economic fundamentals. This raised the question
of how long stabilisation could be sustained by a Band-Aid approach.
macroeconomic stability required determined efforts to address the
underlying causes of financial imbalances. On this the signs were not
reassuring. The latest Economic Survey showed stagnation in all areas
crucial for fiscal consolidation and external sustainability: revenue,
exports and investment.
As reviving economic growth presented
the biggest test, other indicators too were less than encouraging.
Agriculture and services, representing almost 70 percent of the economy,
underperformed in the government’s first year. The official assumption
that spending on 74 highway projects would spur growth and power a
turnaround rested on shaky ground because funding them implied more
The location of several of these projects and Sharif’s
lack of engagement with smaller provinces also provoked criticism that
he was Punjab-centric in his approach, an impression he did little to
Electricity shortages remained the major hurdle for an
economic rebound. The government announced an ambitious energy policy,
raising tariffs and reducing untargeted subsidies. But uneven execution
of its strategy left the situation in uncertainty. Electricity theft and
inefficient power distribution companies remained unresolved problems
while circular debt mounted again.
It was on the security front
that the government’s wavering stance was most telling. Its vacillation
on addressing militancy and insistence on talks while militants waged
war reflected confused thinking as well as infirmity of will. The
government’s conduct signalled anything but resolve to deal with a grim
situation likely to compound after Western forces draw down from
Afghanistan later this year.
While top officials privately told
Western governments they expected "nothing to come out of talks", at
home people were fed a different narrative. The government pretended
that law and order could be de-coupled from efforts for an economic
recovery, whereas the two had to be handled in tandem.
of a coherent internal security strategy and inclination to kick this
can down the road allowed attacks on security personnel and key
installations to continue, as the armed assault on Karachi airport so
dramatically testified. When the government sanctioned ‘retaliatory’
action it was as if revenge could substitute for strategy.
on this issue unsettled civil-military relations when stable ties with
GHQ should have been a high priority for the PM. Other issues – former
president Pervez Musharraf’s trial and Sharif’s non-consultative style
of decision-making – also injected instability into the relationship as
grievances accumulated and frustration mounted. How this relationship is
fixed in Sharif’s second year will determine the country’s ability to
manage its imposing security challenges.
What should we conclude
from all this? Most importantly, that Sharif’s governance in his first
year has been a throwback to the past, displaying traits that mimic
those in his earlier stints in power. Five of these merit consideration.
Sharif has shown a marked preference for personalised, unstructured
governance, which avoids reference to established institutional
processes of decision-making. Non-institutional governance has
manifested itself in several ways, for example in convening meetings on
national security ‘outside’ formal structures (the cabinet committee)
and launching schemes of questionable financial viability without formal
consultations that would subject these to the test of scrutiny.
Personalised governance has also involved a haphazard process of
receiving advice. This has shut the PM off from wider opinion and led to
Second, decision-making has been confined to a narrow
circle or small coterie of loyalists around the PM. In consequence, key
decisions have been announced to the cabinet, not taken there, much
less in consultation with the wider parliamentary membership. The case
in point is how Mamnoon Hussain was chosen as the country’s president
and sprung as a surprise on the party.
A third characteristic is
procrastinating on taking tough decisions with a tendency to look for
painless ways to address the country’s vexed problems, which require
expending political capital and a degree of risk-taking. Sharif has
chosen to take the easy decisions – spending on highways and buses –
rather than tackle the country’s urgent challenges.
parliament has been treated as a passive body with a de-emphasis of its
role. This reflects another aspect of non-institutional rule. By rarely
attending National Assembly sessions and not showing up in the Senate,
Sharif has signalled that he sees parliament less as an instrument of
democratic governance than as a means to keep the government in power.
It was therefore no surprise that parliament failed to pass a single law
in his first year.
Five, Sharif has shown a penchant to accord
priority to high profile, attention-grabbing projects of dubious
financial feasibility. In his first term the yellow-cab scheme was a
monument to misprioritised spending. This time it seems to be the
metro-bus project, unlikely to ever be financially viable, and
pre-empting resources that could be better spent on modernising the
railways, or enhanced spending on health and education.
Sharif begins his second year with habits of governance that have not
produced an inspiring outcome in the past. But he still has the
opportunity and reservoir of political capital to make a course
For this, Sharif will need to chart a clearer policy
direction for the country, expand his team beyond family and loyalists,
professionalise decision-making and unlearn habits that have undermined
his effectiveness and credibility. He needs, above all, to give primacy
to institutional governance over personalised rule and reform over
fiscally imprudent schemes.
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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.