Less than a year since he came to power, Imran Khan is facing a host of political and economic hurdles. Rahimullah Yusufzai reports
The acute economic problems facing Pakistan are eroding public support for Prime Minister Imran Khan barely ten months into his premiership.
Given the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led coalition government’s weak economic performance, the country’s opposition parties have been emboldenedto consider launching a protest campaign after the Eidul Fitr religious festival in June. Disparate opposition parties, ranging from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the PPP to the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) and the Awami National Party (ANP) are gradually closing ranks to form an alliance against the government. Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI-F, the biggest religio-political party in the country, has pledged to bring thousands of its supporters to the federal capital Islamabad by September to stage a dharna(protest sit-in) until the government is forced to quit.
The proposed dharna seems to be an effort to replicate a similar one staged by Imran Khan’s PTI in Islamabad in 2014, when party workers stayed put for 126 days near the buildings housing key state institutions on Constitution Avenue. Although Imran Khan and his ally, the Pakistani-Canadian politician and Islamic scholar Tahirul Qadri, who is head of Pakistan Awami Tehreek, failed to dislodge Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the time, it certainly weakened his government and affected how it functioned.A long dharna by the JUI-F and its allies against the PTI government could similarly weaken it, making it difficult for Imran Khan to implement his agenda for reform.
In an attempt to fix the economy, the government replaced Finance Minister Asad Umar with Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, who had served in this position during the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rule several years ago, and changed other important officials heading the ministry of finance, State Bank of Pakistan and the Federal Board of Revenue. The government also sought and received huge loans from friendly countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and China. Though such timely help enabled Pakistan to averta balance of payment crisis, the government still needed to seek an IMF bailout package under tough conditions.
Overall, these corrective measures to revive the economy have yet to show the desired results.Despite Dr Sheikh’s assertion that the economic situation would improve in six months to a year, there is general scepticism about such statements. The people have, after all, heard such optimistic comments from government functionaries before.
As for government efforts to raise revenue and widen the tax net, these have met with resistance as there is a tendency in the country among the well-to-do not to pay taxes. Only two million Pakistanis pay taxes in a population of 210 million.
The Pakistani rupee– recently reported by Bloomberg as the worst performing currency in Asia due to its rapid depreciation – has plunged more than 20 percent in value in recent months and now over150 rupees are needed to buy one US dollar. This depreciation accelerated in recent weeks as Pakistan finalised its talks with the IMF to seek a $6 billion bailout package. The drop in the rupee’s value caused price hikes, made imports costlier and brought the government under fire for failing to manage the economy.
While a recent public opinion survey by Gallup Pakistan showed approval ratings for Imran Khan himselfat 50 percent, the same survey revealed that the level of trust in his government is far less. And those who don’t approve of the prime minister are harsh: his critics describe him as inept and incapable of running the government.
Yet the fact that Imran Khan never held public office in the past works, in a way,to his advantage, as there was no scandal attached to his name, unlike his political rivals who remained in power and are now facing serious cases of corruption and misrule. It was certainly easier for Imran Khan as an opposition leader to do populist politics and run an anti-graft campaign in a country where corruption levels have always remained high. However, running a government is proving challenging for the cricketer-turned-politician, who made tall promises and set difficult goals during his campaign for the 2016 election.
Apart from the economic issues confronting the government, the political situation is far from stable and security is occasionally breached by acts of terrorism. On the foreign policy front, relations with the US are uncertain even though Washington has lately been praising Pakistan for playing a positive role in the Afghan peace processby facilitating the Taliban-US peace talks. Pakistan has moved closer to China and mended ties with Russia and Iran, but there is no intention to cause a break with the US. The relationship with Afghanistan continues to be unfriendly, while links with India are hostile.
Though acts of sabotage have registered an appreciable decrease in recent years, primarily due to sustained military operations against local and foreign militants, suicide bombings and targeted killings continue to be a cause for concern. The province of Balochistan, which is the focus of the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), has been a particular target for militants, including Baloch separatists and sectarian groups. A May 12 suicide mission by Baloch separatist fighters targeted a five-star hotel in Gwadar, the seaport being developed with China’s assistance, to harm Chinese investors and engineers, but the attack failed as no foreigner was staying there in the fasting month of Ramadan. The three attackers were gunned down by security forces while another six, including a soldier, two hotel security guards and four employees were also killed. In an earlier attack in April, Baloch separatists waylaid passenger buses on the Makran Coastal Highway linking Karachi with Gwadar and shot dead 14 security forces personnel after checking their identity cards and separating them from other passengers.
A terrorist attack also took place in Punjab’s capital, Lahore, where policemen were the target, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s capital, Peshawar, continues to face terrorist threats. In North Waziristan and Bajaur, formerly part of the tribal areas now merged with the adjoining Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, cross-border attacks frequently take place as Pakistani militants based in Afghanistan fire at members of Pakistan’s security forces patrolling the border.
The recent announcement by the so-called Islamic State, also known as Daesh, that it will establish its ‘Wilayah Pakistan’ (Pakistan province) unit would normally be a serious cause for concern, but not anymore. The group has suffered defeat in Iraq and Syria and is in retreat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where its Khorasan province chapter operated until now. The announcement made media headlines, but Pakistan government officials, experts and former militants downplayed its impact by pointing out that Daesh was already operating in Pakistan with support from local partners such as the militant Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) factions.
IS also announced the establishment of its India unit named ‘Wilayah Hind’ with a nominal presence in India-administered Jammu and Kashmir. In the case of both India and Pakistan, the IS aim was to stay relevant in South Asia after suffering huge setbacks in the Middle East, and motivate its demoralised fighters. The announcement didn’t say anything about the future of IS Khorasan, which in fact remains the most potent unit of the group in the region as it is still in control of some territory in eastern Afghanistan,despite losing at least four heads in US drone strikes.
Pakistan is capable of dealing with security threats, having countered more serious situations in the past. But the economic challenges and political instability will continue to haunt the country for the foreseeable future. It is now the responsibility of Prime Minister Imran Khan to stand up to the challenge and lead the government on the path of economic recovery and political stability.