EXPLAINER: What awaits politically unstable Pakistan?
Months of economic discontent in Pakistan have been crowned with days of tense drama. At the end of the week, one of the country’s most charismatic prime ministers was ousted and his replacement was a member of a prominent political dynasty.
And the turmoil may not be over yet, with implications for the entire region.
Veteran politician Shahbaz Sharif, brother of a disgraced former prime minister, was sworn in on Monday to lead a coalition government of disparate parties spanning the political spectrum from leftist to radically religious. They also have a history of rivalry, and governing will not be easy.
Sharif replaces Imran Khan, a beloved cricket star turned conservative Islamist politician who was ousted in a vote of no confidence, after a fight that dragged on to Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
A preview of what happened and what could be to come:
WHAT LED TO THE CHANGE?
On April 3, Khan circumvented an initial vote of no confidence demanded by the opposition by dissolving parliament and calling a snap election. The opposition, which accuses Khan of economic mismanagement, appealed to the Supreme Court. He ruled Khan’s decision was illegal and the vote of no confidence took place early Sunday, removing him from power.
Khan has exploited anti-American sentiment in Pakistan since 9/11, accusing Washington of conspiring with opponents to overthrow him because of his independent foreign policy. The US State Department denies any involvement.
Still, the change in government may be good news for the United States, whose chaotic departure from neighboring Afghanistan amid the Taliban takeover has left Washington in need of allies in the region.
WHO MAKES UP THE GOVERNMENT NOW?
The new government is a collection of disparate parties that have fought each other bitterly.
The most prominent are Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by the son and husband of Benazir Bhutto, the assassinated former prime minister. Both are family run and family dominated, allowing no leadership challenges.
The third largest partner is the pro-Talban and radically religious Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Pakistan or Assembly of Clerics. Its religious schools are spread across the northwest, not far from the Afghan border, and have provided soldiers for the Afghan Taliban and the local Pakistani Taliban. The JUI rulers are also a family dynasty, led by Fazl-ur-Rahman.
The leadership of the three parties is tainted by allegations of corruption. This includes Sharif, who was to be charged Monday with money laundering. They deny the charges as politically motivated.
They have joined forces to oust Khan, but have little in common politically, apart from an agenda to change electoral laws and realign constituencies to improve their chances in the upcoming elections, which are due to take place in here in the summer of 2023. They are also united against a return of Khan, who seeks to end Pakistan’s dynastic politics. There is no guarantee that their shared agendas will keep them together.
Emboldened by nationwide rallies that brought together hundreds of thousands of his supporters on Sunday, Khan also appears to want to force a snap election through “street power”. This could lead to violence, as its base is made up mostly of a passionate young generation.
Even though the opposition ousted him citing economic mismanagement, it’s not clear whether the new government has any easy solutions.
HOW WILL THE CHANGE AFFECT US POLICY IN PAKISTAN AND AFGHANISTAN?
When asked after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan whether Pakistan would help the United States with territorial rights, Khan replied, “Absolutely not.” claiming that his country would only be a partner “in peace, but not in war”.
He was a vocal critic of America’s post-9/11 war on terror, a position that resonates with many Pakistanis who feel they were unfairly targeted and accused of “not doing enough” to stop the Taliban during the 20-20 war. years of Washington in Afghanistan.
About 80,000 Pakistani civilians died in militant attacks as a result of the war, and nearly 5,000 Pakistani soldiers were killed, according to Khan, although no Pakistanis or Afghans were involved in the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda. Its leader, Osama bin Laden, took refuge in Afghanistan to plan the attacks and was killed while hiding in Pakistan in 2011.
Khan has refused to give the United States any access to Pakistani territory or airspace for so-called “over the horizon” attacks on Islamic State targets in Afghanistan. This strategy allows the United States to keep its forces out of Afghanistan by using air power to strike militant targets where it finds them.
US President Joe Biden has not had a phone call with Khan since his election, giving conspiracy theories of a rift between Islamabad and Washington. Khan says the United States wants a “submissive” Pakistan and opposes its warm relations with China and Russia.
Khan’s government pushed for the world to engage more with Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders and resisted US attempts to punish them. Khan sharply criticized Biden’s decision to earmark $3.5 billion from Afghan reserves held in the United States for the families of 9/11 victims.
While Pakistan resisted recognizing the Taliban under Khan, it led efforts to move the world in that direction. He justified some of the Taliban’s restrictive rules, such as stopping education for girls beyond grade six, by tradition and culture. This angered many, even those in Afghanistan.
Washington is likely to find more willing and like-minded partners among the new government to deal with Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership.
WHAT ECONOMIC PROBLEMS AWAITS US?
The opposition said Khan had failed to manage the economy properly, with both inflation and soaring energy prices.
He tried last month to lower the price of petrol at the pump by 10 Pakistani rupees (a few US cents), but it is almost certain that his successors will have to raise them further. Pakistan is also a net importer of oil and gas from Russia, which is waging war on Ukraine.
The new prime minister’s family controls one of Pakistan’s largest business houses, which owns sugar and steel factories. Sharif’s victory boosted the Pakistani rupee from 86 to 82 to the dollar, and the struggling Karachi Stock Exchange made modest gains.
Khan’s government has won international acclaim for managing the coronavirus pandemic with “smart lockdowns” that have protected the important construction industry, which provides jobs for the poorest. Its anti-corruption reputation has encouraged Pakistanis abroad to send money home, bringing in $29.4 billion in 2020-21. This amount is expected to rise to $31 billion in 2021-2022.
But the economic future still looks bleak: The Islamic Development Bank expects Pakistan’s gross domestic product to slow to 4% from 5.6% last year, and inflation is expected to rise from 8.9 % in 2021 to around 11% this year.
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