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Cabinet turmoil

Updated April 19, 2019

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Flanked by empty chairs on the stage, Asad Umar cut a lonely and forlorn figure in his farewell press conference as he announced his departure as finance minister, and his continuing loyalty to Imran Khan.

Gone was the bravado, the aggression and machismo with which he countered his political opponents. Only the night before, he had been scheduling appointments for the fateful day and vehemently denying “rumours” of his impending separation from his ministry in a TV appearance. Whatever it was that happened on the morning of April 18, happened suddenly.

The fact of the minister’s removal is one thing, but the circumstances tell a story all their own. Mr Asad managed to salvage his dignity by facing the press corps right after his announcement and putting on a brave face, reiterating his faith in the party and its mission, demonstrating rapport with the reporters — and doing it all with a smile.

Now it is the government’s turn to salvage its dignity. For seven years, Mr Khan presented the erstwhile finance minister as the answer to the country’s problems.

His entire campaign seemed to have two planks only: eliminate corruption, and put Mr Asad in the finance seat.

Eight months into his term, the fight against corruption has yet to yield any major victory, while Mr Asad has been eliminated.

What does this say for the position the government is in?

The prime minister now needs to explain his decision to remove Mr Asad from the finance ministry in more detail, especially considering that the latter failed massively to live up to expectations.

The timing is also worrisome. The talks with the IMF are at an advanced stage and the budget is at hand.

There is a brand new finance secretary in place, so it is not clear who will be providing the much needed continuity in the days ahead and the party appears ill-prepared with a replacement.

In short, the removal of the finance minister at such a critical juncture has prolonged the period of uncertainty the economy has limped along with for more than a year now.

The replacement will have to find his or her feet fast and hit the ground running.

A gruelling set of policy decisions await — something Mr Asad hinted at in his press remarks — that will have a very negative impact on the government’s popularity.

Indecision will only aggravate matters, something the government cannot afford at this moment.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2019