Quiet before the storm

Published April 12, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

AFTER more than a week of twists and turns and surprises yesterday, the new prime minister of Pakistan was selected by the National Assembly. By the time this piece appears in print, the process of selecting the cabinet would also have begun. The tension is already abating. However, the uncertainty may continue, for the political crisis facing the country is far from over, even though the system managed to counter all of Imran Khan’s legal and constitutional shenanigans.

The political crisis or instability has two aspects: the first is Imran Khan himself. Despite all the analyses about his growing unpopularity, he still enjoys popular support, some of which was on display on Sunday night in various cities. Regardless of whether or not the number of supporters are sufficient to bring him to power, they are enough to create a spectacle on 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 honour which was once reserved for the PPP. However, the PPP appears to have handed this status over to PTI.

This will be helped by the narrative he has created of an external conspiracy. It may have earned the opprobrium of those who follow foreign policy, but politically it will serve him well. It seems Khan had watched closely and learnt from the experience of Nawaz Sharif whose party and allies were not entirely comfortable with his attacks on the military during the PDM’s first phase. By skirting the issue of who orchestrated his ouster domestically, Khan has chosen to blame a foreign conspiracy which allows his supporters and his party’s leaders to not just adopt it but to also push it. It may also convince others, for US intervention in Pakistani politics has not just been a rumour in the past. Additionally, it will fit in well with the anti-American sentiment the state itself has whipped up frequently.

More importantly, it allows Khan to retain his support within the military, something which is evident from retired military men speaking up on his behalf in recent days.

Imran Khan’s decision to quit the National Assembly is a debatable one.

That the foreign conspiracy slogan worked is evident from the manner in which the opposition not only reacted but also had to defend itself — even as Shehbaz Sharif gave his first speech as prime minister he had to speak of the issue, announcing a parliamentary probe. 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 till the next election, the date for which is unclear. This will not be easy, especially when he faces an onslaught from the state. The foreign funding case may not be the only one he faces. The party is also bound to experience more factionalism of the kind Pakistan excels in. In the middle of all these battles, keeping emotions high on the streets and sustaining them till elections are called won’t be easy. His decision to quit the National Assembly is also a debatable one; conceding space in constituency politics has never helped politically and the PTI’s presence in the Assembly would have added to the pressure on the new government.

The second part of this political crisis will be governance and PML-N’s ability to manage it.

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

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

Aside from the backlash, Shehbaz Sharif will also be tempted to put off tough decisions if he wants to keep the PML-N’s reputation and popularity intact for the next election. (His first speech didn’t address the petrol prices freeze.) Deciding either way will not be easy because there is no consensus on when the next election will be.

Read: Seven days that shook Pakistan

There are said to be voices within the PML-N which want the election immediately, knowing that governing for even a short time will tarnish its electoral prospects in Punjab. However, it is not evident if these voices are in a majority or if they will prevail, even though Nawaz Sharif is in this camp.

It is not clear where Shehbaz Sharif stands on the matter and neither is there any clarity on how the now government coalition as a whole views the issue. The PPP, the other large party in the coalition, says little except for reiterating the need for legislation before elections are called. The legislation agenda is far from decided, it seems, for some speak of electoral reforms and some of NAB, and others of census and delimitation. Still others say the government will continue till November, at least, to bring some certainty regarding who will be making the big decisions due then.

And in case the government’s term extends from weeks to months, the burden of rising prices will be borne by the PML-N. It would suit the PPP to distance itself from the matter if it plans to make any headway in Punjab in the next election, which means Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari will also be tempted to criticise Sharif junior’s governance.

This too will be exploited by Imran Khan and the PTI. The ride promises to be far from easy till the next elections.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2022

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