The feel-good factor surrounding the country’s new leadership will have to be backed up by decisive action, writes Rahimullah Yusufzai
Former star cricketer Imran Khan has begun settling into office after becoming Pakistan’s 22nd prime minister on August 18.
When the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI), which Khan founded in April 1996, won the general election held on July 25 this year, it was the culmination of a 22-year-long struggle during which Khan suffered humiliating defeat in one election after another.
Six years after being established, his party finallymanaged to win its first seat in the National Assembly when Khan won in his native Mianwali district in 2002. In 2013the PTI performed well in the general election, gaining the second highest number of votes after the winner, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), to form the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
However, polls suggest the PTI’s latest victory wasnot decisive. It barely gained a simple majority in the 342-member National Assembly, evenafter making an alliance with five smaller parties and luring several independently elected lawmakers to its side. Imran Khan obtained 176 votes to defeat former Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, younger brother of deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the president of the PML-N, who polled 96 votes. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), jointly led by the late Benazir Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari and son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, abstained from the vote.
The PTI did manage to gain a majority in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province ruled by the Sharif brothers for the last 10 years. With the help of a small party, Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q), and independent lawmakers, itnow forms the provincial government. Due to its decisive victory in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the PTI has also formed the provincial government there for the second consecutive term and, in addition, it is part of the coalition government headed by the newly formed Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) in Balochistan. But the PTI is in the opposition in Sindh, where the PPP returned to power on the basis of its strong showing in the province’srural Sindhi-speaking areas. In terms of countrywide votes polled by the political parties, the PPP stood third after the PTI and PML-N.
Though the peaceful transition to the third parliament in a row and successful transfer of power to an elected government brought satisfaction to Pakistan’s democrats (because past governments were summarily dismissed by the president or the military), it remains to be seen if Prime Minister Khan’s administration will be able to overcome the political instability that has characterised the country’s politics for years. In particular, his pledge to take ruthless measures to ensure across-the-board accountability could trigger resentment, prompting the affected politicians and their parties to unite in opposition to the PTI government.
One of the first decisions taken by the new federal cabinet was to put the names of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam – now imprisoned in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail after being convicted by an accountability court on corruption charges – on the exit control list so they cannot leave the country, should they be granted bail by the Islamabad High Court. The government defended the move, saying it was merely implementing an earlier decision that the caretaker government had failed to apply.
The PTI government is facing criticism, particularly from the PML-N, for taking a decision that shows Imran Khan’s animosity towards Nawaz Sharif. The three-time prime minister and his daughter, the PML-N have pointed out,would not fleePakistan even if bailed, as they had willingly returned tothe country from Britain(where Sharif’s wife, Kulsoom was hospitalized), knowing fully well that they would be jailed.
The new government has also started implementing a number of austerity measures announced by the premier in his maiden speech to the nation. Khan said he will not live in the grand Prime Minister House and instead stay in the bungalow meant for his military secretary. The number of employees at the PM House is to be reduced from more than 500 to just two and the fleet of luxury, bullet-proof cars are to be auctioned, leaving only a couple. Overseas medical treatment for ministers and government officials has been banned and foreign visits by cabinet members are to be curtailed. A taskforce has been formed to consider better uses for the PM, President, Governor and Chief Minister Houses, as universities, guesthouses or other public functions. Additional taskforces have been established to bring back money illegally stashed abroad by influential Pakistanis, curb corruption and scrutinise the tax system, so that revenue can be increased by taxing those who do not pay.
There have been mixed reactions to the 21-member federal cabinet selected by the prime minister. His supporters call it a cabinet of experienced politicians and retired bureaucrats, capable of meeting the political, security and economic challenges facing Pakistan. However, critics point out that the country’s youth is not represented, even though young people are 65-year-old Khan’s most enthusiastic supporters and cheerleaders for his slogans ‘Change’ and ‘Naya Pakistan’ (New Pakistan). The premier also had to include nominees fromthe five allied parties in his cabinet, and their presence diluted the impact that the PTI wished to create through its choice of ministers.
Khan’s choice of new governors and chief ministers in the provinces has also left much to be desired. The alert media were quick tohighlight the low educational qualifications of Sindh governor Imran Ismail, while the choice of Shah Farman as governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also drew criticism, and the proposal to appoint Dr Ameer Mohammad Jogezai as governor of Balochistan had to be withdrawn when it was disclosed that he is facing investigation forcorruption. The selection of Sardar Usman Buzdar as chief minister of Punjab surprised many as he is an unknown, first-time lawmaker who joined the PTI just before the election and got this most prized job after a mere 100 days’ association with the party. The choice of former provincial minister Mahmood Khan as chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was also unexpected, as frontrunners such as Pervez Khattak, Atif Khan and Asad Qaiser were bypassed.
The next hurdle was appointing PTI cabinets in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as there were many aspirants for ministerial berths. After much consultation, a 23-member cabinet was formed in Punjab while 15 ministers were named in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. As the PTI isnot known as a disciplined party, there was concern that the cabinet formation and allocation of portfolios could create differences in its ranks.
Amid dispute by most political parties over its victory, the PTI government is striving hard to attain legitimacy. Allegations of rigging have been made, results challenged and Election Commission of Pakistan, the caretaker government, the judiciary and even the military criticised for favouring the PTI. The PML-N and other smaller parties have been at the forefront of the protests, though these have now subsided as their lawmakers have been attending parliament’s sessions after taking part in elections for prime minister, speaker and deputy speaker. The PPP has a stake in the present system as it is the ruling party in Sindh and does not want to rock the boat. The divisions in opposition ranks at this early stage has benefited the PTI and reduced its worries. The government could facilitate investigation into specific constituencies identified by the opposition parties to find out if irregularities were committed and polling rigged.
For tackling the country’s economic challenges, there has been talk of an IMF bailout being sought, though finance minister Asad Omar denied any such decision being taken at this stage. US State of Secretary Mike Pompeo tried to put a spanner in the works by opposing the likelihood of an IMF loan through a provocative statement directed at both China and Pakistan. This underscores the difficulties confronting Pakistan as it tries to balance its relations with China and the US.
Imran Khan has talked of seeking inspiration from the welfare state of Medina in early Islamic history, helping the poor and the downtrodden to attain their rights, enabling farmers to stand on their own two feet and ensuring that all people are treated equally and justly.
He also mentioned six countries that were of the utmost importance to Pakistan. Three – China, Iran and Saudi Arabia – are friendly, while the other three – Afghanistan, India and the US – are less so. Khan emphasised the need to strengthen relations with China, learning from it how to pull people out of poverty, and achieving the full potential of CPEC and other economic initiatives. He also underscored the need for improved relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, and of playing the role of facilitator for conciliation between these two arch-rivals in the Middle East.
However, Pakistan’s foreign policy challenges are formidable in the context of mending fences with Afghanistan and the US, and starting a dialogue with India. Imran Khan highlighted the suffering of the Afghan people and reiterated Islamabad’s resolve to work for peace in Afghanistan as it was linked to peace in Pakistan. He also brought the United States into this equation by offering to help it bring peace to Afghanistan and advocating friendly ties with the US on an equal basis.
For India, Khan’s message is the need to revive the peace dialogue that has been suspended since the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. However, he qualified this by reminding India that the core issue of Kashmir would have to be discussed and resolved in order to bring peace, stability and prosperity to the subcontinent.
Enjoying a lot of goodwill and support at home, Imran Khan has created a feel-good atmosphere in Pakistan after taking charge. But the question being asked is whether he is capable and powerful enough to put his words into practice.