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Pakistan in the slough of uncertainty

Imran Khalid

Indubitably, Pakistan is nowadays passing through one of the most turbulent periods in its recent history. On the surface, it is a serious political turmoil. But, intrinsically, it is an amalgamation of financial and political tribulations which are dragging the country into the slough of uncertainty. The whole saga started in mid-March this year, when the Opposition submitted the no-confidence motion against former Prime Minister Imran Khan in the National Assembly. Since then, the political arena of Pakistan has been witnessing many swirling ups and downs on daily basis for all the players, but there is only person who is finding himself being continuously whirled into the quagmire of despondency and anguish, without any hope of respite in the near future. This is none other than Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Every stakeholder has gained something out of the existing political turmoil – all the political parties in the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), the ruling coalition, except the Prime Minister’s own party Pakistan Muslim League -N (PML-N), have relatively bigger share in the federal cabinet and other lucrative postings. Ironically, Imran Khan too, despite losing the premiership, has emerged as the biggest beneficiary of this episode by successfully diverting attention from his extremely dismal performance as the PM to his new agitation movement against the current coalition government, with a new tagline of “imported government – na manzoor” (imported government is unacceptable).

Former Prime Minister has openly alleged that the United States conspired with the Pakistani establishment and PDM (current ruling coalition) to topple his government through a no-trust motion. That’s why he has labelled the current coalition regime as the “imported government” because it was planted by Washington through a conspiracy with the help of the establishment (army).  This is a seriously dubious allegation without any tangible proof and it has been categorically refuted by the White House as well as the spokesperson of the Pakistan Army. But Imran Khan has made this allegation as the main mantra of his protest campaign after his dismissal through a no-trust motion in the parliament. And now he has been demanding early general elections. Interestingly, it is the same establishment that was considered to be his main patron till March this year and which also blatantly helped him to become the Prime Minister after his 22 years of straying in political wilderness.

The reality is that Imran Khan was already in hot waters due to his inefficient financial management of the country. At the start of 2022, when the public resentment was picking up momentum against the astronomical inflation, continuous devaluation of rupee and bad governance, it was all clear that Imran Khan would have a very tough time at the annual budget session in June and political analysts had already started talking about his dwindling chances to survive after the annual budget session. The removal from power before the budget session has actually proven a blessing in disguise for Imran Khan, whose popularity is now inversely soaring high because of a very effective protest campaign that is playing the sympathy and patriotism cards against the so-called imported government. He has been conducting unabated protest gatherings, press conferences, media interviews and image-building through social media platforms ever since he was thrown out of the PM house in April.

In the last days of the PTI government, the value of rupee was melting fast, commodity prices and petrol prices were jacking up on almost weekly basis, Imran Khan was in deep mess and it was expected that after the 2022-2023 budget the PTI government would not be able to survive against the disgruntlement of the public any longer.  All was set for the “natural political demise” of the PTI government. The Opposition had to just wait for few more months and the PTI would have been out of the corridors of power under the extreme public pressure against the high inflation, fuel prices and eroding value of rupee. In the absence of good financial managers – courtesy the long list of incompetent and clueless heads of the PTI’s finance team – Imran Khan changed 4 finance ministers in the last 2 years- the PTI government had actually no concrete plans to salvage the country from impending financial catastrophe.

The Opposition, particularly the leadership of PML-N, needed a little more patience for few months to let the erosion of the PTI government to take its natural course. But the Opposition – the PDA to be more exact – showed unnecessary haste in getting rid of Imran Khan at a very wrong time, though for all the right reasons. Till April, it was clear to everybody, even to the common men in the streets, that the country was heading towards a massive financial crunch after the budget session.

Everyone was expecting that the currency devaluation will be drowned to new lows, fuel prices will cross the Rs.200 mark the imposition of the IMF dictation will make it almost impossible for any finance head of Pakistan to steer the economy out of this vicious circle in the near future. Writing on the wall was very clear in early April; the uncontrollable storm of inflation, price-hiking, electricity distribution disruptions and unemployment will eat up the political career of Imran Khan. But instead of showing some patience, the PML-N leadership toed the line of the stalwarts of the PDM like Asif Ali Zardari and Maulana Fazalur Rehman who wanted to get rid of Imran Khan as quick as possible.

While Mian Nawaz Sharif, former Prime Minister and chief of PML-N, was also fiercely against removing Imran Khan before the budget session. Now the question is what prompted Mian Shehbaz Sharif, against the advice of his elder brother Mian Nawaz Sharif, to jump into the fray and take up such a step, which can at best be described as “utterly rash” at a time when economy was heading towards massive crisis. Asif Ali Zardari (husband of Benazir Bhutto and co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party and Maulana Fazalur Rehman (head of Jamiat Ulemai Islam – F)– the two main players of this episode – had their own venal reasons to persuade the PML-N leadership to join hands in uprooting Imran Khan and replacing him a with a coalition set-up under the leadership of Mian Shehbaz Sharif before the budget session. Obviously, there was also a go-ahead from the powerful establishment to dislodge Imran Khan hastily. Both Asif Ali Zardari and Fazalur Rehman had nothing to lose in this game. In case of failure of the no-confidence motion, the whole embarrassment would have been smashed in the face of the PML-N, and in the case of success, as it happened eventually, the whole credit would be given to Asif Ali Zardari and Maulana Fazalur Rehman. This is exactly what happened, both Asif Ali Zardari and Maulana Fazalur Rehman are now averring the credit for staging a successful parliamentary coup against Imran Khan. Both have major share in the power structure after the formation of the new government, both have their sons in the federal Cabinet and both are now keeping a low profile and letting Shehbaz Sharif alone to face the music and take the blame alone for the fuel price hike and sinking rupee.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is the only person who is facing the brunt of the harsh realities of running a government with both hands and pockets tied. The rupee devaluation against dollar has crossed a Rs.210, the petrol prices have also followed the dollar, electricity distribution is getting out of control in this blistering summer and commodity prices are skyrocketing. All the right ingredient to make any government highly unpopular. Most of the financial and technical experts agree that these landmines were planted by the inept and incompetent finance team of the PTI government, which made delayed and faulty financial decisions that dragged the country into this financial imbroglio. But now PM Shehbaz Sharif, not other partners of his coalition government, is being blamed for his inability to control the unabating financial predicament. PM Shehbaz Sharif was well aware of the impending financial crunch and its fallout on the popularity of the PML-N. Mian Nawaz Sharif was also seriously against tabling the no-confidence motion before the budget session. But both Asif Ali Zardari and Maulana Fazalur Rehman shrewdly exploited the old, burning desire of Mian Shehbaz Sharif to wear the cap of premiership and convinced him to strike Imran Khan out of power in April, which has so far proven to be a miss-timed stroke for PM Shehbaz Sharif.

The overtly over-confident Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, famous for being a hard task master with a hefty track record of initiating and completing “projects” within the tight deadlines, was relying on his traditional style of brinkmanship to control the situation within few weeks. But the ground reality is that the financial mismanagement of the previous government as well as existing snags of global economy have created so much mess that it will take years to put the things back on the track. As for today, a common man does not understand, nor he wants to understand the technical complications of domestic and global economy. This is the simple reality. As expected, owing to the tough monetary constraints and the stringent IMF conditionalities, the 202-2023 budget presented by the coalition government does not offer any tangible relief for the people at large. Apparently, PM Shehbaz Sharif and his core team have no concrete plan to offer some respite for the common man in the immediate future.

Post-budget months are going to be very tough for PM Shehbaz Shari: the inflation-related pressures on the lower and lower-middle classes of society will engulf his popularity. On the other hand, Imran Khan is riding high, courtesy the extremely professional social media team of the PTI, on the wave of his resurgent popularity to create more problems for the government. Contrary to his questionable performance as the Prime Minister, there is no denying that Imran Khan has always proven to be the most formidable person as an Opposition leader – he will become more Khatar Nak (dangerous) in his own words. But PM Shehbaz Sharif is now in a fix. He can neither leave the stage at this time, nor he has anything tangible in his bag to resolve the immediate problems of the common man. This was the personal choice of PM Shehbaz Sharif to get rid of Imran Khan before the budget session.  Mian Nawaz Sharif was too adamant to listen to the persuasion of Asif Ali Zardari and Maulana Fazalur Rehman, who are now both hiding in low limelight. Th fact is that the 2022-2023 budget would have political weakened Imran Khan to the point of surrendering his premiership. In that case, situation would have been much conducive politically for Mian Shehbaz Sharif to take the charge of the government. However, on the other hand, Imran Khan is also treading on a rather dangerous path of direct collision with the establishment in his last-ditch effort to get assurance for early elections.

Also published on Medium.

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