Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed a fairly large rally in Jamrud, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at the end of a tumultuous week for politics in Pakistan. In what should have been a policy speech for the uplifting of newly-merged districts of the province, Khan simply lashed out at his opponents in the Punjab and Sindh. With great uncertainty on the economic front, severe in-fighting amongst the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leadership, Shahbaz Sharif’s name taken off the Exit Control List (ECL), Nawaz Sharif getting some respite from the courts and Bilawal Bhutto raising the stakes with his harsh criticism, Khan seems to be feeling the heat.
The PTI is still only in the first of its five-year government, but these initial eight months have provided enough ammunition to the opposition benches and Rawalpindi to fire warning shots against Khan. Rather than walking smartly and navigating the choppy economic waters, the government chose to open battles on many fronts right from the get-go.
The first battle Khan launched was when he brought in Usman Buzdar as chief minister of the Punjab. Buzdar has proven to be highly unqualified and incompetent for the second most important civilian post in Pakistan. Hoping to govern remotely, Banigala has managed to bring the largest province of Pakistan to a bureaucratic halt.
Besides uncertainty in the Punjab, the finance minister in Islamabad has not been able to control the poor economic indicators. Utility prices, food prices, inflation, devaluation of the rupee have all seen a significant increase since the PTI took the oath of office. Receiving extremely high utility bills has only frustrated an already-beleaguered population which had great expectations from Finance Minister Asad Umar.
Seeing Khan backed into a corner, the opposition has come out with all guns blazing
While the minister was not provided a robust economy, the government has not done enough to pacify economists, investors or the miltablishment with sound policies, despite being able to pass a few mini-budgets in the parliament.
Khan’s frustration is not just with his economic team; his party vice-chairman and former secretary general have once again drawn daggers. Sitting beside Punjab Governor Chaudhry Sarwar, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi launched a scathing attack on Jahangir Tareen in a press conference from the Governor House.
Tareen was disqualified by the Supreme Court for being untruthful and banned for life from holding public office. Despite the lifetime ban, Tareen sits in federal cabinet meetings and has presided over policy meetings. This has drawn the ire of the foreign minister who claims Tareen’s disqualification does not allow him to be involved in official government matters. While Qureshi and Tareen’s disdain for each other has been an open secret for years, it is only recently that Qureshi has publicly gone against his leader Imran Khan. Rumour has it that Qureshi may once again be eyeing the prized seat of chief minister of the Punjab and is ramping up pressure on Khan at the behest of those sitting in Rawalpindi.
Seeing Khan backed into a corner, the opposition has come out with all guns blazing. Former President Asif Zardari has called on his supporters to march on Islamabad and oust the PTI-led government, telling them that it is time for Imran Khan to go home. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari led a train march from Karachi to Larkana, riling up his political base. Stopping in various cities, Bhutto lambasted the government for selected accountability against the PPP, inaction against banned organisations and poor handling of the economy. Mocking Imran Khan as a “selected prime minister” Bhutto seems to be gaining traction against the government. His true test, however, will come outside his home province of Sindh once he brings his movement to the Punjab.
Shehbaz Sharif’s efforts to calm tensions between those in Rawalpindi and Nawaz Sharif seem to have borne fruit. The elder Sharif, who was in jail on corruption charges, was allowed medical relief and sent home while Shehbaz Sharif’s name was removed from the ECL. (Imran Khan was apparently very upset on the leniency shown to the Sharif brothers). Shehbaz Sharif, being leader of the opposition, has been giving a tough time to the prime minister on the legislative front, most recently on the key appointment of members to the Election Commission of Pakistan. Senior party members of the PML-N have been heavily criticising the government over its failure in controlling the economy and political victimisation on charges of corruption.
Taunting his opponents, Imran Khan’s chest-thumping speech in Jamrud sent a message to Rawalpindi and his political rivals that the government will complete its five-year mandate despite their best efforts to toss him out. However, Khan’s obsession with wanting to eradicate his opponents through corruption charges and convictions does not seem like a winning strategy. Since he is unable to take control of the economy and since he can’t contain pressure from within his own party, Rawalpindi has raised the temperature against him even more.
During his cricketing days, Imran relished playing under pressure with his back against the wall. If the cornered tiger does not get the wheels of the economy running and if he does not pacify the resentment brewing within his electorate and the miltablishment, five years will be an unreachable feat.