PPP presents the fifth budget but what’s it worth
The ruling PPP has done it. It has become the first elected government to present five consecutive national budgets. Much of its recent politics were centred around getting to the pole.
The party’s two major goals this year were the Senate elections and presenting the fifth budget of a fifth stint. To give the devil its due, these were not easily achieved.
Consider the enormous odds: towards the end of last year, the so-called Memogate reared its ugly head when Ambassador Husain Haqqani was accused of secretly seeking American intervention to scuttle a military takeover.
The case taken to the Supreme Court chiefly by PPP archrival and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, had the full backing of a hostile military and a section of the baying-for-blood media.
President Asif Zardari then suddenly took ill and was flown out to Dubai for treatment, fueling wild speculation about the imminent fall of the government as tensions with the powerful army reached fever pitch.
In the ensuing battle of attrition, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani not only publicly rebuked the ‘scheming’ military establishment but also dug in his heels with the symbolic sacking of a khaki defence secretary – replacing him by a civilian, and a woman at that.
However, the refusal of Mansoor Ijaz – the prime accuser in Memogate who claimed Haqqani dictated the secret memo – to appear in person to prove the allegations took the wind out of the anti-PPP design of thwarting the Senate elections.
The party successfully attained majority in the upper house as a result of the elections held on schedule. Prime Minister Gilani meanwhile, continued to ignore the fever pitch arising out of Supreme Court’s ‘final call’ to write a letter to have corruption cases against President Zardari in Swiss courts reopened.
All sorts of delaying tactics were employed to prolong the contempt case in the hope of finding space to present a fifth budget.
The apex court eventually convicted Gilani on April 26 and even punished him “till the rising of the court” but the verdict still had an air of ambiguity regards disqualification when only a reference was sent to the speaker of the National Assembly in ‘post office’ avatar for onward delivery to the Election Commission.
The speaker – who owes the custodianship of the House to the PPP – however, declared it had no merit and quashed it on the last possible day of the legit 30 limit.
Even as the jury is still out on whether the speaker’s decision holds – predictably, multiple petitions have been filed with the Supreme Court since then – last week the ruling party managed to present the budget against all odds.
To the extent it is a milestone, apparently shows the maturing of the system. However, the same cannot be said of the budget per se.
Budgets this side of the Indus have since long been surrounded by cynicism. Maybe, one cannot even fault this given the rather obtuse history of fiscal indiscipline.
For even the most hardened economist, a Pakistani budget is a complex document not easily given to waging except perhaps to suggest it may not be what it seems at the best of times, for, not only is figure fudging rife but also the heads under which they appear.
The gimmickry sometimes lends itself to mini budgets and more often than not, the allocation for the top of the pops – like the Presidency and PM Secretariat – shoots through the roof.
This year’s budget was preceded by interesting speculation. Despite enduring four years of hardship, the hoi polloi as well as most pundits were somehow convinced a fiscal space would be found in sync with the forthcoming elections. The premise had promise: which party wouldn’t dig deep and even manipulate things in order to humour the electorate in a re-election bid?
However, the latest document appears to have trumped these expectations with the PPP choosing not to play ‘out of their skins’ because – surprise of surprises – it is fully confident of returning to power again and understandably doesn’t want to hoist itself on its own petard!
The one apparent fudging is under the heads, which is likely meant to support or ‘buy votes’ – in electoral parlance. Reportedly, the prime minister has kept Rs22 billion at his discretion as part of People’s Works Programme-11, with light refracting through a poll prism.
Another Rs5 billion have also been reserved for People’s Works Programme-1 meant for distribution amongst party members to boost their poll chances. These allocations have been made under “special programmes” pertaining to the Public Sector Development Programme.
In terms of the revenue rivulet, this budget was always going to be about three determinants: debt servicing, recouping losses of public sector entities and defence. Rs 1.1trillion – or more than one-third of the total (Rs2.96t) outlay – will be taken up by interest payments; Rs209 billion will serve as subsidies for the public sector; and at Rs643 billion, one-fifth will be consumed by defence. It is instructive to note that allocations jumped massively in the outgoing fiscal and there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again.
The writer is a former newspaper editor based in Islamabad and can be reached at [email protected]