Calm before the storm – Journal

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AFTER more than a week of twists and surprises yesterday, Pakistan’s new Prime Minister was chosen by the National Assembly. By the time this piece appears in print, the firm selection process would also have begun. The tension has already subsided. However, the uncertainty is likely to persist, as the country’s political crisis is far from over, even though the system has managed to counter all the legal and constitutional shenanigans of Imran Khan.

The crisis or political instability has two aspects: the first is Imran Khan himself. Despite all the analysis of his growing unpopularity, he still enjoys popular support, some of whom showed up on Sunday evening in various cities. It doesn’t matter if there are enough supporters or not to bring him to power, they are enough to create a spectacle in the streets. This will keep Imran Khan relevant and a force to be reckoned with. After all, his harshest critics concede that he is far more effective in opposition than in power, an honor once reserved for the PPP. However, the PPP seems to have ceded this status to the PTI.

This will be aided by the narrative he has created of an external conspiracy. It may have earned him the opprobrium of those who follow foreign policy, but politically it will serve him well. It seems that Khan had watched closely and learned from the experience of Nawaz Sharif whose party and allies were not entirely comfortable with his attacks on the military during the first phase of the PDM. By-passing the question of who orchestrated his ouster domestically, Khan chose to blame a foreign conspiracy that allows his supporters and party leaders to not only embrace but push him. It may also convince others, because US intervention in Pakistani politics has not been just a rumor in the past. Moreover, it will sit well with the anti-American sentiment that the state itself has frequently stoked.

More importantly, it allows Khan to retain his support within the military, which is clear from retired servicemen who have spoken on his behalf in recent days.

Imran Khan’s decision to leave the National Assembly is questionable.

That the foreign conspiracy slogan worked is evident from the way the opposition not only reacted, but also had to defend themselves – even as Shehbaz Sharif gave his first speech as Prime Minister, he had to speak about the question, announcing a parliamentary inquiry. This is the problem with populist slogans; they force others to engage with them rather than ignore them, and end up setting the agenda.

However, the challenge for Imran Khan will be to keep the issue alive until the next elections, the date of which is unclear. It won’t be easy, especially when facing an onslaught from the state. The foreign funding case may not be the only one he faces. The party is also likely to experience more factionalism of the kind Pakistan excels at. Amid all these battles, keeping the emotions strong in the streets and sustaining them until the election is called will not be easy. His decision to leave the National Assembly is also questionable; conceding space in constituency politics never helped politically and the presence of the PTI in the Assembly would have added to the pressure on the new government.

The second aspect of this political crisis will be governance and the ability of PML-N to manage it.

The economy is in a royal mess, partly because of the PTI decisions (or rather their lack of substantial restructuring or reform) and partly because of our intractable long-term problems. Khan’s recent decision on fuel prices has added to the mess.

The PML-N faces an extraordinarily difficult situation, economically. If he tries to make the right decisions, he will face public backlash and grilling from the PTI, on talk shows and on the streets. PTI will have a chance to ask if its incompetence was the sole reason for the inflation while PML-N will have to explain why it can’t bring down electricity prices and whether or not it will reverse autonomy from the State Bank as she promised. The three-year debate about PTI’s incompetence and how it led to inflation will not be so easy to sustain.

Apart from the backlash, Shehbaz Sharif will also be tempted to postpone tough decisions if he wants to keep PML-N’s reputation and popularity intact for the upcoming elections. (His first speech did not mention the gas price freeze.) Deciding one way or the other will not be easy because there is no consensus on when the next election will be held.

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It is said that there are voices within the PML-N who want the immediate election, knowing that ruling even for a short period will tarnish his electoral prospects in Punjab. However, it is not clear if these votes are in the majority or if they will prevail, even if Nawaz Sharif is in this camp.

Shehbaz Sharif’s position on the issue is unclear and there is also no clarity on how the current governing coalition as a whole views the issue. The PPP, the other major party in the coalition, says little except to reiterate the need for legislation before the election is called. The legislative agenda is far from decided, it seems, as some talk about electoral reforms and some about NAB, and others about census and delimitation. Still others say the government will continue until November, at least, to provide some certainty about who will make the big decisions then.

And in case the government’s mandate extends from a few weeks to a few months, the burden of rising prices will be borne by the PML-N. It would be appropriate for the PPP to distance itself if it intends to advance Punjab in the next elections, which means that Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari will also be tempted to criticize the governance of Sharif junior.

This too will be operated by Imran Khan and the PTI. The journey promises to be far from easy until the next elections.

The writer is a journalist.

Posted in Dawn, April 12, 2022

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