January 31, 2022
ISLAMABAD – A WEEK is a long time in politics. Three recent developments indicate the PTI government’s growing nervousness and apprehension about its political future and cast renewed doubt about its ability to lead for the remaining duration of its term. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s angry responses during a live public phone-in session, the unceremonious departure of his government’s so-called accountability czar and growing voices of dissent within the ruling party all signal a government that is increasingly beleaguered and rattled by rising political and economic pressures.
First, the prime minister’s remarks that have been the subject of much media comment and fuelled intense political speculation. From defending his government’s economic record in the face of rising public anger with soaring inflation, the prime minister kept veering off track to assail the opposition and repeat his familiar mantra about never engaging with corrupt opposition leaders. This tirade included an assertion that he did not recognise Shehbaz Sharif as parliamentary leader of the opposition.
Faced with challenges, the PM needs to repurpose his government and recast his team and party organisation.
More significant and what made headlines was his warning that if he was forced out of power he would be much more dangerous for his opponents. “If I take to the streets, you will have nowhere to hide,” he said. This sparked a wave of media speculation about who this was directed against. The political opposition or the establishment that he has long relied on for support? Had the prime minister fallen prey to conspiracy theories doing the rounds about efforts to destabilise his government even though entirely unfounded? While this remained in the realm of speculation, what his statement did signal was a sense of frustration from a leader whose grip on power seems to be waning. The acknowledgement that he could be out of power sent a signal of weakness rather than confidence. And criticising the media and even the judiciary reflected how isolated he seemed to feel.
Quick on the heels of this came the resignation of his adviser Shahzad Akbar, the lynchpin of the government’s accountability drive, who has been targeting opposition leaders for the past three years but without making much headway or securing any major conviction. That in fact seemed to seal his fate with the prime minister reportedly unhappy with his performance and forcing him to step down. This marked an admission of nothing less than failure of what has been the government’s flagship policy in its three years in power. In fact, accountability of the corrupt was the PTI’s most important election promise and has been its principal narrative in office. It has also spent more time and energy on this than any other endeavour in power.
But while the government was embarked on this drive, now set back by circumstances surrounding Akbar’s ouster and the latest Transparency International report, it was people’s increasing economic hardship that concerned them most. As inflation soared and gas shortages hit households and businesses, economic discontent intensified. Several opinion polls reflected growing public dissatisfaction with the government. Under increasing pressure, the government launched assorted spokesmen to explain that inflation was a global phenomenon but this rationale offered little comfort to people in economic distress. Indeed, it became increasingly apparent that public support had begun to significantly erode for both Khan and his government as a consequence of the rising cost of living. An irate prime minister struggled to respond to callers’ questions about inflation in the phone-in which showed how pressured he felt, in recognition of the fact that this was exacting a heavy political price.
Another political development is the growing expression of dissent within the ruling party as members confront the prospect of elections next year in a situation where voters are anxious or angry about skyrocketing inflation as indeed gas shortages. The much-publicised outburst by senior PTI leader Pervez Khattak in a party meeting and the critique delivered by MNA Noor Alam Khan on the floor of the National Assembly are the most recent examples of this. In a stinging rebuke of his party leaders for the economic pain being inflicted on people, Noor Alam said he would raise his voice against inflation and unemployment even if it meant violating party discipline. He was promptly served a disciplinary notice. But party insiders say this is just the tip of the iceberg as many others at different rungs of the party feel the political heat from fraught economic conditions or are disgruntled for other reasons. Even leaders of the government’s key allied parties such as PML-Q have started voicing misgivings. The recent statement by Chaudhry Shujaat that the prime minister is being misled about the situation illustrates this. All this may well be posturing ahead of elections but it suggests that the government has become distanced both from its own political base and erstwhile allies.
Against this backdrop the road ahead to elections for Khan and his party is strewn with hurdles and difficulties. The electoral setback in KP’s local elections urged the prime minister to dissolve all PTI organisations across the country in late December. But new office bearers appointed at the national and provincial level are far from being experienced organisation figures. Moreover, leaving two lacklustre and weak chief ministers in place in Punjab and KP does little to strengthen the party or improve its political prospects.
The prime minister needs to reboot and repurpose his government to deal with challenges in fraught economic times and to refurbish its waning image. The accountability narrative has run its course as voters are more interested in their economic well-being than with anything else. The government’s constant preoccupation with demonising the opposition also says nothing about its own performance and what it intends to do in the future. An overhaul of the cabinet is needed as this is the team Khan will take to the general election. In terms of message, team and organisation the ruling party has much work to do before the perception takes wider hold that it is incapable of delivering and unfit to govern.