August 18, 2022
JAKARTA – IT was yet another massive show of political strength by the ousted prime minister in Lahore last week. The triumph in the recent by-elections and regaining control of Punjab seem to have given the PTI a huge political boost. Evidently, the charge of receiving ‘unauthorised funding’ does not seem to have had any effect on the party’s support base.
For now, the PTI is clearly dominating the political narrative. But can Imran Khan maintain the momentum with his populist rhetoric?
Undoubtedly, it was a well-choreographed show on the country’s independence anniversary in the political heartland that continued beyond midnight. The overall content of Imran Khan’s speech of more than an hour may not have been very different from his past speeches but the tenor certainly was, with no mention of the ‘neutrals’ playing dirty.
Also missing was the threat of storming the capital and forcing the federal government into announcing the election date. The difference in his position was apparent. The inquiry into illegal funding and the arrest of his close aide on sedition charges seem to have stolen his thunder. The pressure was palpable as he warned against what might be described as a conspiracy to remove him from the political field.
Khan referred to the ‘sword of Damocles’ dangling over his head. There may be some realisation that he has opened too many fronts — hence, the easing of criticism against the establishment. In fact, the tone has become much more conciliatory as he blames his rivals for creating a chasm between his party and the military.
The faltering administration is increasingly relying on the security establishment to deliver.
In a curious change of tack, Imran Khan now seeks to challenge his opponents in by-polls rather than putting his entire effort into forcing the government to dissolve the National Assembly and hold early elections. In a clever move, he has decided to contest all nine seats on which polls have become due after the acceptance of the resignation of some PTI lawmakers.
Notwithstanding his rising popularity graph, the move could prove to be a great political gamble. Even if he wins all the seats, it is not going to change the power dynamics. It will only mean another round of by-elections. With the rest of the resignations of PTI lawmakers being accepted in the coming weeks the country would go through another cycle of by-elections.
One wonders how that would serve the PTI’s political strategy. It could only keep the country engaged in purposeless electoral activities and in a perpetual state of instability.
Meanwhile, the Shehbaz Sharif government’s incompetence and the rapidly declining political stock of the ruling coalition has added to the problem. In fact, the PTI’s increasing popularity, to a great extent, owes itself to the failure of the ruling alliance to present a more effective policy narrative.
Most of these parties represent the past and can’t think beyond dynastic political interests. They have failed to recognise that social and economic changes have also impacted political dynamics in the country. The humiliation suffered by the PML-N in the recent by-elections has exposed the vulnerability of a party that had dominated Punjab politics for decades.
One of the factors responsible for the debacle was the choice of Hamza Shehbaz as chief minister. The very image of father and son holding the most powerful positions at the centre and in the biggest province was enough to alienate the urban, educated and youthful population.
The entire PML-N storyline over the years has revolved around Nawaz Sharif. The party did not have anything new to offer to the young generation looking for change.
That effectively fed into the PTI’s campaign against family-dominated politics — notwithstanding the fact that the party itself has relied on political dynasties to win seats. Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s son and daughter being given party tickets is such an example. Yet, it has not affected the party’s blind following.
Moreover, the internal struggle within the Sharif family has further weakened the PML-N and affected the Shehbaz Sharif government’s capacity to deliver. Some of the hard measures taken by the finance minister may have helped stem the free fall of the economy but it’s not clear whether he is fully in charge given the constant interventions from London. That has also been the reason for some delayed action that makes it more difficult to stop the slide.
The nine-party coalition government appears like a rudderless ship with no coherent policy direction. It’s one of the largest cabinets in the country’s history with many of the ministers and advisers without a portfolio. The disorder is much more pronounced on the foreign policy front with an invisible foreign minister in the post.
The existing disarray on the conduct of foreign policy was highlighted when the prime minister’s adviser — Tariq Fatemi — recently met the US deputy secretary of state at her office in Washington and reportedly discussed bilateral relations including economic matters. But curiously, a few days later, a statement issued by the Pakistan foreign ministry clarified that Fatemi’s visit to Washington was not official.
Unsurprisingly, the faltering administration is increasingly relying on the security establishment to deliver on both the economic and foreign policy fronts. It was unprecedented for an army chief to phone the US deputy secretary of state to push the IMF into immediately releasing nearly $1.2 billion that Pakistan is due to receive. The army chief reportedly made similar calls to the leaders of Saudi Arabia and some Gulf countries, apparently for financial support for the country.
It seems to be the beginning of a new phase of hybrid rule, with a weak civilian administration and a worsening political crisis. The situation has become even more precarious with the ruling coalition losing control over the most powerful province. The ongoing confrontation between the federal and Punjab governments has taken a very ugly turn. That has also limited the role of the central government.
It is a very serious situation with no political solution in sight. Political uncertainty makes it harder to stabilise the economy. Even early elections are not going to resolve the political crisis in this atmosphere of confrontation. It is an extremely unfortunately position for a county that has just celebrated the 75th anniversary of its independence.