The rise and fall of a star PM

Ahmed Mustafa, Tuesday 12 Apr 2022

Cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan made a transitional stir in Pakistani politics before things came back to normal, writes Ahmed Mustafa

The rise  and fall  of a star PM
Sharif addressing the National Assembly in Islamabad (photo: AFP)

Former Pakistani prime minister, as Imran Khan’s social media accounts now state, lost his battle against the established political order after four years of populist rule. He failed to avoid a no-confidence vote in the People’s Assembly, becoming the first PM to be ousted by a parliamentary vote in Pakistan’s 75-year history as independent state.

Khan tried to avoid a no-confidence vote earlier by asking Pakistani President Arif Alvi to dissolve parliament and call for an election in three months’ time. But opposition parties challenged the decision in the Supreme Court, which ruled that parliament should resume its activities. The Pakistani Supreme Court traditionally rules in favour of the incumbent government in such political disputes. This time it did not.

Opposition parties, mainly the Pakistan Muslim League led by Shehbaz Sharif and the Pakistan People’s Party led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, had enough votes among them to win the vote and remove Khan. Sharif is the younger brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif who was sentenced to ten years in prison for corruption. He was recently released to seek medical treatment in London, where he has stayed since. He might now return after Shehbaz forms a government. The Foreign Ministry in the new government will go to the leader of the other party, the son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and former president Asif Zardari.

The new government in Pakistan faces many challenges, mainly economic. It will inherit a six billion dollar loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that necessitates drastic austerity measures. Living conditions in the world’s fifth largest country by population (over 220 million) is among the reasons Khan was ousted.

That is why a Dubai-based Pakistani analyst expected that the new government might have to call for an early election anyway, instead of waiting for the due date in August 2023. “Sharif would achieve two goals by calling for election this year. The first goal is to gain popular legitimacy to kill any claims of a political coup. The second is to avoid voters’ anger after a year that could witness harsh economic decisions,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Other than the economy, challenges have resulted from Khan’s populist policies since 2018. The most prominent is the anti-American foreign policy that brought Pakistan closer to China and Russia. Khan’s pro-Taliban stance and fiery statements against the West alienated some of Pakistan’s traditional donors, especially the Arab Gulf countries. As the Pakistani analyst notes, relations with countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates should return to normal under Sharif’s government. He recalled how Imran Khan “cosying to militants cost the country the support of traditional friendly countries”.

The outgoing prime minister tried to stir more turmoil in the country by describing his ouster as a foreign conspiracy led by the United States. But he only lost the support of a small partner party in his ruling coalition and even some members of his Tehreek-e-Insaf Party, who defected to other parties. Even the young generation, who formed his electoral base in 2018, became frustrated with his mishandling of the economy and his political ineffectiveness. Recent political uncertainty fuelled a devaluation of the national currency, the rupee, dragged down the country’s stock market and forced the Central Bank to raise interest rates.

There will still be some diehard Khan supporters, but not enough to challenge the traditional political establishment that he was elected to confront, fighting its corruption and making a “real change”. That didn’t actually happen, even though Khan caused a stir in the political scene, as London-based commentator Tanveer Bhatti notes. Bhatti told Al-Ahram Weekly that young Pakistanis “feel alienated” now. He added that Khan “promised too much in terms of populism … he wasn’t realistic as to how hard it would have been to rule. It’s easier to be an opposition leader than to be in power.” Whether that stir can affect the future is not clear. “In Pakistan the state apparatus lacks the strength so things like tax revenue and tax collection are very weak,” notes Bhatti.

Though the new government might be able to forge traditional alliances with the military and other influential parts of the establishment, it will take time to bring things back to normal. This also comes at a time of rising inflation and global economic difficulties arising from the war in Ukraine and the pandemic years.

The new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said this week: “We will bring stability to Pakistan … There will be no revenge against anyone.” But some of Khan’s close allies were reportedly detained to stop them from “agitating the public to take to the streets in protest”. There might be no revenge, but bringing stability to the impoverished country is easier said than done.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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