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A rational choice?

Did the PML-N make a rational choice by opting to vote out the then prime minister in April last year and subsequently form a coalition rather than wait for the incumbent to complete his term?

For the last one year, this question has been raised every now and then, particularly in the wake of some significant political or economic development and a judicial verdict.

An important part of contemporary political-economy literature and rational choice theory sees individuals and groups making calculated use of the limited choices and resources at their disposal to maximize their payoffs. Essential to the theory is the assumption that decision-makers – businesses, political parties, individuals – don’t make choices on the fly; rather they consider the pros and cons of the different options in a well-thought-out manner and on the basis of the best available information.

This fundamental assumption of the rational choice theory is contested by competing schools, which argue that decision-makers are prone to be influenced, and at times swept off their feet, by emotions and external factors. One course of action may be chosen, not because it’s dictated by reason, but because it’s attractive or promises an immediate benefit.

The sheer will to believe that a particular option is the best may make a decision-maker blind to its obvious drawbacks. People may also be unable or unwilling to gather all the necessary information because of time or resource constraints, thus deciding on the basis of incomplete information. All such factors may make for irrational decisions.

Let’s return to the question framed in the beginning. As a rule, every political party sets its eyes on assuming the reins of government to execute its agenda. As opposed to pressure groups, political parties are never set up to deliberately shun power. In parliamentary democracy, in particular, the opposition is entitled to try its luck in voting the government out.

Therefore, when the PML-N and its partners drew a bead on power by bringing a no-trust motion against the PTI government, there was nothing irrational about their decision. On the contrary, they would’ve acted irrationally had they chosen not to do so. Hence, the answer to the question must be in the affirmative.

“Not so fast,” dissenting voices will caution. Yes, generally, a party shouldn’t turn its back on power on purpose. Yet, at times, it ought to make such a choice, because the cost of being in government may well exceed its benefits. It’s then that forming the government becomes an irrational decision. Did that happen in the case of the PML-N? To answer this question, let’s look at the circumstances in which the change in government came about.

The 2018 controversial national elections produced a hung parliament and consequently a coalition government headed by the PTI. As coalitions are inherently unstable, the parties in the opposition saw a fair chance for themselves to move to the other side of the aisle sooner or later. In case of the PML-N and other opposition parties, history was on their side as well, as no prime minister has ever completed his/her term in Pakistan. Some other factors made a change in the government a specious option for the opposition. One was the attitude of former prime minister Imran Khan, who from day one categorically ruled out the possibility of a rapprochement with the people on the other side of the political divide for allegedly being corrupt to the core.

The second factor was the alleged witch hunt of the opposition in the name of accountability. Several frontline opposition leaders were put behind bars, in quite a few cases on seemingly frivolous charges. As the PML-N and other opposition parties saw it, the only way to halt such ‘unjust and uncalled for’ treatment was to bring the government down and themselves walk into the corridors of power.

The most potent catalyst for a change in government, it is widely believed, was the perception that an abrupt change at the top in the country’s most powerful institution was in the making, which would lead to decimation of the opposition and complete ascendency of the ruling party. It was that apprehension that more than anything else may have goaded a divided opposition into making a common cause against the ruling party. Next, almost all the junior partners in the coalition broke ranks with the PTI and joined hands with the opposition to vote the government out.

The aforementioned political scenario was only a part of the overall scenario at the time of the no-trust motion. The economic scenario had its own dynamics. The economy was in hot waters: a galloping current account deficit, fast depleting foreign exchange reserves, a rapidly falling domestic currency, and spiraling prices – all fueling a moderately high but unsustainable economic growth rate.

The pre-2018 naive optimism that the induction of the ‘right man’ at the top would turn the economy and governance around had all but shattered. With the multi-billion credit agreement with the IMF in jeopardy on account of some indiscreet decisions of the government, the economy was heading for a default. The economy of Sri Lanka was on the way to a crash, which it actually did a month later. In such circumstances, whichever party formed the government would be skating on thin ice, to put it euphemistically.

The PML-N being the largest opposition party in the National Assembly headed the new coalition government, with Shahbaz Sharif – the ‘master administrator’ – in the van. The PML-N has widely been regarded as more astute in managing the economy than other parties. However, this is a myth, much like the PPP being anti-establishment and the PTI being a party of change (for the better).

At any rate, from the outset the new government faced a dilemma. The only way to avert the imminent default was to resume the IMF programme. However, the resumption of the programme would have to be preceded by an increase in (indirect) taxes and elimination of subsidies to the satisfaction of the multilateral donor, as well as letting the exchange rate be determined by the market. All such measures were bound to be highly inflationary and hit the lower- and middle-income groups hard. Not only that, but they may also denude the PML-N of much of its political capital, thus corroding its electoral prospects.

Things have turned out in almost the same fashion. While the economy is likely to avert a default, the feat has been accomplished at great economic and political costs. The rupee has been on a free fall. Since June last, inflation, which the ordinary person is most affected by and cares about, has surpassed 20 per cent every month, reaching 31.5 per cent at the end of February 2023. The electorate has responded by turning away from the PML-N even in its strongholds in by-polls over the past one year, signaling that the party would likely cut a sorry figure in national and provincial elections to be held later this year.

On the political front, Imran Khan continues to thunder at will and has left no one in doubt that, whether in or out of power and despite a slew of cases that he’s facing, he can’t be tamed. Many believe, or fear, that in the upcoming elections the PTI may emerge as the winner which takes all, leaving the others to fight for their survival.

Since we don’t have the full facts before us, it isn’t possible to come up with a definite answer to the question with which this article began. That said, it is evident that the PML-N grossly overestimated its economic management skills and overtly underestimated the PTI’s popularity and its continuing backing by the people who matter. Perhaps, the fear that a particular official may be promoted to the top slot was so overpowering as to cloud the party’s judgment. If that was the case, it is a sad commentary on our fragile system in which even a top political party is seen to sink or swim depending upon this all-powerful question.

Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com

Hussain H Zaidi, "A rational choice?," The News. 2023-03-11.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political divide , Accountability , Corruption , Imran Khan , PM Shahbaz Sharif , Paistan , PPP , PTI