A woman cast her ballot to vote at a polling station during Pakistan’s national elections in Karachi on February 8, 2024. — AFP

Multiple challenges face winner of general election

The new govt will probably need a new IMF programme, face high political temperatures and deal with rising militancy.
Published February 9, 2024

ISLAMABAD: Pak­istan held a national election on Thursday to elect a new government, with multiple crises plaguing the country.

Here are some of the challenges that will confront the government that takes charge:

Pakistan narrowly averted sovereign default last summer through a last-gasp $3 billion bailout from the IMF — but the lender’s support ends in March, following which officials believe a new, extended programme will be needed. Negotiating a new programme, and at speed, will be critical for the new government, which will take over an economy beset by record high inflation and slow growth caused by tough reforms.

A new programme means committing to steps needed to stay on a narrow path to recovery, but which will limit policy options to provide relief to a deeply frustrated population and cater to industries that are looking for government support to spur growth.

Political temperatures

Political tensions have been high in the run-up to the election due to what former prime minister Imran Khan has called a crackdown on him and his party. Mr Khan been in jail since August, angering his millions of supporters.

He has been sentenced to various jail sentences three times in the last week but more cases are pending against him — including one that accuses him of ordering violent attacks on military installations, which could entail the death sentence.

Mr Khan maintains mass popular support in Pakistan, and a continued crackdown and his remaining in jail would only stoke tensions at a time when stability is needed to attract foreign investment to shore up the economy.

Mr Khan alleges the military launched a crackdown on him and his party after they fell out on policy decisions when he was the prime minister. The military denies this.

Deal with rising militancy

Militant attacks have risen over the past 18 months after a lull when many militant groups were driven into Afghanistan with a military operation in 2014.

The groups — particularly the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — reorganised in Afghanis­tan after the Taliban returned to power there in 2021, and have been reportedly using advanced weaponry left behind by NATO-led forces.

Militants have carried out a string of high-profile attacks and returned to strongholds inside Pak­istan. But Islamabad’s limited fiscal space limits its ability to fund another sustained military operation.

An ethno-nationalist Baloch insurgency in the southwest, which also targets the interests of key ally China, has picked up steam. Beijing has invested heavily in mines in the mineral-rich Balochistan province and in the strategic port, Gwadar.

Dealing with hot borders

The TTP attacks have caused unprecedented friction between Islam­abad and the Taliban, who were previously believed to have close ties, as has Islamabad’s expulsion of hundreds of thousands of illegal Afghans, many of whom have lived in Pakistan for decades.

Pakistan and Iran shared tit-for-tat air strikes on purported militant bases on each other’s soil last month, and while the two seem to have fixed ties since, the incident has opened up a new security worry for Pakistan on its western border.

Meanwhile on its eastern border, fresh tensions have risen with old foe India after Islamabad accused New Delhi of running an assassination campaign inside Pakistan. India is also going to the polls by May, and a return to power for India’s Hindu nationalist government with a heavy mandate could further complicate matters for Pakistan’s new government.

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2024