Ringing the changes

Rahimullah Yusufzai examines the recent wide scale restructuring of Imran Khan’s cabinet

Exactly eight months after forming his government, following the electoral victory of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Prime Minister Imran Khan made sweeping changes to the federal cabinet on April 18.

By making ten ministerial appointments and shuffling the portfolios of some of his ministers, he ensured cabinet members were kept on their toes and pushed to perform better. While these changes were not unexpected, as the prime minister had warned that ministers failing to perform would be sent packing, the scale of the reshuffle was beyond expectation. Khan defended his move by insisting that poor performance was the reason.

This clearly displeased the affected ministers, particularly Health Minister Amir Mahmood Kiyani, who, unlike the others, was not given another portfolio after being sacked. Kiyani was the only minister who went public to defend his performance, saying it pained him to be called incompetent. Others quietly accepted the prime minister’s decision,reiterating their loyalty to him. All of them knew they largely owed their seats in parliament to the charismatic Khan, who, as leader of the PTI, pulled off his unlikely victory in the July 2018 general election.

However, the cabinet changes lacked imagination as the allocation of portfolios was not done on the basis of ministers’ expertise or calibre. Rather, it seemed those whose portfolios were changed were being accommodated even if the new portfolio did not match their skills or experience. Moreover, one might ask the prime ministerwhy ministers with poor performance records were being allocated new portfolios at all. As the prime minister has hinted at further changes within the cabinet, it appears that reshuffling of ministers may continue if his government is able to complete its five-year term.

Known as a hard taskmaster, Imran Khan has been regularly monitoring and reviewing the performance of all his appointees. Yet a comment frequently heard nowadays is that he is equally responsible for the poor performance of his cabinet, given that he handpicked the ministers. This means he made the wrong choices and could do so again.

There is also speculation that the prime minister could replace Punjab chief minister Usman Buzdar and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister Mahmood Khan, both of whom belong to the ruling PTI. The two provinces are ruled by the party, which is also part of the coalition government in Balochistan as a junior partner. The PTI is weak in Sindh province, where the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by the Bhuttos and Zardaris, has dominated politics and elections. Both Usman Buzdar and Mahmood Khan were unexpectedly made chief ministers of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, respectively, bypassing political heavyweights. Though the prime minister has on several occasions backed both men and rejected reports that they were being replaced, the speculation hasn’t stopped. This is eroding the chief ministers’ authority and affecting the working of their provincial governments.

The cabinet changes were triggered by the resignation of finance minister Asad Umar, who had been tipped for this important position when Imran Khan’s PTI was in opposition, and was hailed as someone capable of fixing Pakistan’s ailing economy. But Umar, the son of a retired army general and former head of the Pakistan branch of a multinational for several years, failed in this task and Khan, determined to replace him,asked him to resign. Umar was then offered the portfolio of energy, but chose not to stay in the cabinet, unlike his colleagues. He later tweeted that Imran Khan was the best hope for Pakistan and would succeed in making a ‘Naya Pakistan’ (New Pakistan).

The timing of Asad Umar’s removal from the cabinet was shocking, as he was due to present the new yearly federal budget in June and was in the final stage of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over emergency loans to ease Pakistan’s mounting balance of payments crisis. Both these crucial tasks will now be performed by Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, who was appointed the prime minister’s adviser on finance. Sheikh served as finance minister in the PPP government formed after the 2008 general election, and earlier as minister of privatisation during General Pervez Musharraf’s military rule. In fact, Hafeez Sheikh was the second former Musharraf aide to make it into Imran Khan’s cabinet, the other being retired Brigadier Ejaz Shah, a former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief who has been made the new interior minister. The cabinet is already packed with Musharraf’s ministers and advisers; the PTI’s original members are gradually being pushed out as Imran Khan has opted for political pragmatism inthe face of growing challenges from opposition parties, in particular the PPP and the PML-N, led by deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif.

NEW BLOOD: The cabinet changes were triggered by the resignation of finance minister Asad Umar
NEW BLOOD: The cabinet changes were triggered by the resignation of finance minister Asad Umar

Ejaz Shah became mired in controversy when the late prime minister and PPP leader Benazir Bhutto claimed,  before her assassination in Rawalpindi in December 2007, that the retired brigadier was among the people who had hatched a conspiracy to kill her. Shah was not tried and later entered politics. He was elected a member of the National Assembly in the 2018 polls and, a few months ago, was made minister of parliamentary affairs. His elevation to full-fledged interior minister eased out minister of state for interior Shahryar Afridi, who became minister of states and frontier regions.

Another interesting case is that of information minister Fawad Chaudhry. His portfolio was changed two days after he claimed that no changes in the cabinet were under consideration, clearly indicatingthat the information minister was kept in the dark about the impending cabinet reshuffle. Even more baffling was his new appointment as science and technology minister, which should have gone to someone qualified for the job. Dr Firdaus Ashiq Awan, who served as information minister in the last PPP government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, has been appointed as special assistant for information to the prime minister. This also explains the dearth of experience in the PTI government when it comes to handling the information portfolio.

Ghulam Sarwar Khan, the minister for petroleum and natural resources, was also assigned a new portfolio, aviation division. It was a steep fall for a man who had assumed importance in the PTI ranks after defeating former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan in two National Assembly constituencies in the 2018 general election.

The prime minister’s appointment of technocrats to key posts hasundermined the position of politicians. Nadeem Babar was made special assistant to the prime minister on petroleum division after having served as chairman of the task force on energy. Another technocrat, Dr Zafarullah Mirza, was appointed special assistant to the prime minister on national health services. These appointments reinforce the impression that politicians are incapable of running ministries as they politicise institutions and are not necessarily selected on merit. In fact, those who have been seeking the formation of a government of technocrats feel vindicated, as they believe this was necessary to put things on the right track and revive Pakistan’s economy.

However, there is no real possibility that an elected democratic government will make way for an administration of technocrats, as the country’s political parties would come together to oppose such a move.

Despite the challenges faced by his government, Imran Khan is not someone who will give up without a fight. His reputation as a fighting cricketer and then a crusading anti-corruption politician for 22 long years before finding success should ensure his longevity in politics. Despite his evident inexperience – he never held any public office before becoming prime minister – he could learn on the job as he strives for the lofty goals that convinced many Pakistanis to give him a chance to build a ‘Naya Pakistan’.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz

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