The most urgent challenge for the new prime minister is to secure a $3 billion loan from the IMF.
The week of April 3-9, 2022 will go down in the annals of Pakistani history as a vintage week when the nation stood at a crossroads. The heightened political-legal drama between Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Combined Opposition led by Shehbaz Sharif, ended in a photo-finish; with a “vote of no confidence” passing minutes before the midnight deadline. With the opposition winning 174 votes out of the 342 members of Pakistan’s National Assembly, Imran Khan became the first prime minister to be ousted from power.
It was Imran’s quest to cling to the chair at all costs that led to a national crisis. Interestingly, the three ‘A’s synonymous with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan featured prominently in the imbroglio. The ‘army’, although reputed to have taken a neutral stance, actually helped break the stalemate, with General Bajwa of COAS literally forcing Imran Khan to call for a vote of confidence. “America” was at the heart of Imran Khan’s “conspiracy theory” to overthrow his government. The show coincided with the start of the “holy month of Ramzan”, a period full of “blessings from Allah”.
Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former chief minister of Punjab, has taken the reins of the nation amid formidable challenges. Politically, the two main parties of the new ruling coalition; The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) led by Shehbaz himself and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Bilawal Bhutto, apart from eight small parties, have nothing in common, which makes the whole extremely fragile. At the same time, Imran Khan continues his mass rallies and road shows, protesting against his unconstitutional ousting. He even raised concerns about the security of the country’s nuclear weapons under the new regime; which was flatly dismissed by Major General Babar Iftikhar, DG Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR).
Pakistan’s current economic situation is a nightmare for the new regime. Imran Khan inherited a bad economy but left it even worse after his truncated three and a half year term. He said, “I didn’t go into politics to find out the prices of tomatoes and potatoes.” Pakistan is in the midst of heavy debt, coupled with double-digit inflation and record unemployment. GDP contracted to $292 billion, foreign exchange reserves fell to $11.3 billion on April 1 (barely enough to meet two months of imports), its currency depreciated by 14.3% against the dollar and its public debt stands at 70.7% of GDP. The chances of recovery in the near future are rather low, given Pakistan’s low savings rate and long-standing structural weakness. Even the Asian Development Bank has predicted Pakistan’s GDP growth of just 4% for the current year.
As soon as he took office, Shehbaz Sharif promised to tackle the economic crisis on a war footing. To save the grim situation, the most urgent challenge for the new Prime Minister is to obtain a loan of 3 billion dollars from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to avoid an immediate financial crisis. In line with past practice for the new prime minister’s first overseas visit, Sharif will soon visit Saudi Arabia, the traditional aid donor; followed by a “tribute ritual” to China, the all-time friend to obtain new loans for debt service.
The military has played a central role in shaping Pakistan’s destiny since its inception 75 years ago, with half the time the men in khakis directly ruling the nation; choose to adopt the proxy route for the other half. Despite being in reverse driving mode, the military, referred to as the “establishment” or “deep state,” exercised effective control over the civilian government, often changing regimes at will. Interestingly, no civilian government has completed its five-year term. Even in the case of Imran Khan, the military played a key role in orchestrating his exit; despite the fact that it was thanks to the support of the “Establishment” that the PTI came to power. Sharif will have to keep the army on its right side, despite DG ISPR’s statement that General Bajwa will not ask for an extension or accept such an offer.
As far as Delhi is concerned, not much is expected to fundamentally change as Islamabad’s security and foreign policy is mainly driven by Rawalpindi HQ. Although General Bajwa has sounded a favorable note for better relations with India, but strategically portraying India as an existential threat to Pakistan is in the army’s interest to retain its formidable position as a “savior of the Islamic Republic”. Furthermore, there is an absolute convergence in the fundamental national interests of China and Pakistan with regard to the Indian subcontinent. The Kashmir issue continues to be at the heart of Pakistani politics. In his recent letter to Prime Minister Modi, Sharif said; “Pakistan desires cooperative ties with India and a peaceful settlement of outstanding disputes, including Jammu and Kashmir…” It is evident that there is very limited scope for any strategic maneuvering in this regarding relations between India and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the politico-diplomatic process may experience symbolic traction, especially in the area of trade, as it serves the cause of Pakistan.
Despite an intense political tussle, the saving grace was that the changing of the guard in Pakistan finally took place in accordance with constitutional standards. The Supreme Court has played a crucial role in maintaining its credibility as an institution and accrediting Pakistan’s democratic credentials as the military has chosen to adopt a wait-and-see policy. After hectic week-long negotiations between key stakeholders, the first batch of 34 cabinet members plus three advisers were sworn in. Although all coalition partners have been represented to keep the herd together, dissenting voices are growing louder. per day. Even Bilawal Bhutto has yet to answer the call to join the Cabinet as many wrinkles in power sharing remain to be ironed out.
The new government’s priority is its own survival, given serious internal factionalism, belying any idea of major transformation initiatives. On the contrary, the hands of that cradle of democracy in Pakistan – the establishment – remain omnipresent, ready to play a greater role in times to come.
The writer is a war veteran, former Deputy Chief; currently professor, strategic and international relations.