Monday Apr 18 2022

Government of allies: Can PM Shehbaz Sharif make it work?

JUI-F cheif Fazlur Rehman (L), Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and PPP co-chiarman Asif Ali Zardari. — AFP/File
JUI-F cheif Fazlur Rehman (L), Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and PPP co-chiarman Asif Ali Zardari. — AFP/File 

In a rare turn of events, the Pakistani parliament ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan through a vote of no-confidence on April 10. The Opposition leader, Shehbaz Sharif, won the support of 174 votes in a parliament of 342.

Imran Khan was voted out after days of high political drama. Khan had unconstitutionally attempted to block a previous attempt to bring a no-confidence motion against him by dissolving parliament and calling for an early election. However, the Supreme Court ruled the (former) prime minister had acted unconstitutionally in blocking the process and ordered the no-confidence vote to go ahead.

Shehbaz Sharif was sworn in as prime minister with the support of nine political parties which will now have their due share in the government. At this point, all allies seem to be on one page, but the old fault-lines between the PML-N and PPP may widen close to the next general elections. The new government will have multiple challenges to deal with, ranging from galloping inflation, dwindling economy, bad governance and above all keeping the coalition going for the next year and a half.

This is going to be an uphill task given the previous instances of coalition governments falling apart or staying on the edge of collapse. The PTI government was also an amalgamation of allies consisting of the PML-Q, GDA, MQM-P and BAP. Three of the PTI allies – MQM-P, BAP and BNP – left the party during the recent troubled times and joined the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)/PPP Opposition. Even though the Opposition got the support of more than 15 PTI disgruntled members, it was the MQM-P, BAP and BNP that enabled the opposition to sail past the winning mark.

Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif might have a similar challenge not only to get along with the MQM-P, BNP and BAP but with the PPP too, which probably did more to de-seat Imran Khan than anyone else. Taking care of the JUI-F’s interests will also be a headache for the new government. The PDM Opposition heavily rested on the street power of the JUI-F during its protests — and now is the time to pay back the party.

Setting the foreign policy front in order is another formidable challenge that the new government will have to pay greater attention to. Since Khan had sensed his near downfall, he came up with a sob story calling the Opposition’s no-confidence motion an American backed regime change abetted by local traitors to bring into power pliable slaves. He spread a ludicrous story about a ‘letter’ from the US that threatened Pakistan unless Khan was removed. 

Khan knew anti-Americanism is the drug of choice for populists across the world and hoped this narrative might save his skin. The US has repeatedly rejected Khan’s rhetoric, calling all such allegations "absolutely not true". In what appears to be a damage control tactic, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in his inaugural speech called for a better relationship with the US.

Sharif has also urged better relations with neighbouring India while stressing that a solution still needed to be found for Kashmir, and vowed for expediency on CPEC.

Putting the dwindling economy back on track is no less than a daunting task. Pakistan’s expanding import-export balance, crippling debt, rupee’s all-time low nosedive against the US dollar, sky-rocketing inflation and shrinking reserves are some of the key areas which necessitate immediate attention. The people are grappling with double-digit inflation, as well as wage and job losses, as macroeconomic indicators decline. All these indicators led to stagnation of growth and fewer prospects of genuine improvement. 

The prime minister has set up a National Economic Advisory Council on his first day in office and called for emergency steps to tackle economic challenges. The new government will have to make some politically unpopular but vital decisions to run the country and save it from becoming a defaulter.

The new government doesn’t have years or even months to tackle all these multipronged challenges. The situation demands immediate actions with positive results. Part of the problem looms when the election year isn’t too far. 

If the new government takes realistic decisions, it will dent public expectations which are already undergoing hard-hitting inflation. If it goes with populist decisions such as holding back petrol and electricity price hikes, just as the outgoing Khan did, that will put an unmanageable burden on the economy. And restraining the simultaneous political upheaval in the shape of PTI rallies and its decision of resignation from the National Assembly puts more onus on the new government. The situation is a race against time; let’s see how the new government takes into account all the challenges.

The writer holds a PhD in South Asian Studies. She tweets @AmeenaTanvir

Originally published in The News