The politics and optics of Pakistan’s cabinet reshuffle
Just eight months into his five year term, Prime Minister Imran Khan considered it fit to undertake the first major reshuffle in his cabinet. He fired two of his cabinet ministers including Finance Minister Asad Umar who was not only one of his most senior ministers but also considered highly influential within the ranks of the ruling party.
Normally, changes in the cabinet are not considered an extraordinary phenomenon in a parliamentary form of government because the Prime Minister has wide-ranging powers to induct or sack his ministers and change their portfolios as he deems fit. But in this instance, the timing of the reshuffle has overwhelmed everything else.
The change of guard at the ministry of finance took place right in the middle of crucial negotiations for an economic bail-out package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It was literally a case of changing horses mid-stream. The federal government is scheduled to present its budget in early June and key decisions regarding the budget are normally taken in April. Replacing the finance minister at this time indicates a serious vote-of-no-confidence by the Prime Minister in his own handpicked choice for the important position. It also indicated the discomfort of the IMF in dealing with Asad Umer.
Overall, 11 members of Khan’s team changed places in the reshuffle, affecting seven portfolios. Dr. Hafeez Shaikh was the most prominent addition to Khan’s team as advisor to the PM on Finance, Revenue and Economic Affairs with the status of a Federal Minister. Since he is not an elected member of the parliament, he could not be designated a minister but he will, for all practical purposes, be Pakistan’s finance minister.
Besides the induction of Dr. Hafeez Shaikh, another high profile induction is that of Ijaz Shah as the Minister of Interior, a position which the PM was holding as an additional responsibility. It is ironic that on the one hand he has all the credentials of a successful interior minister: as an elected member of the National Assembly, as a retired Brigadier and with past experience in intelligence and law enforcement agencies. But on the other hand, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is deeply agitated by his selection because former Prime Minister and PPP Chairperson Benazir Bhutto had said Shah, alongside General Pervez Musharraf and Chaudry Pervaiz Elahi, should be investigated in the event of any harm coming to her prior to her assassination in 2007.
Over the past eight months, many questions have been raised about the competence and capacity of the team put together by the Prime Minister to govern the affairs of the federation and two provinces – Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) - where Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) had emerged as the majority party.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
And yet, the diktats of politics are strange. The PPP itself ended up inducting Elahi as Deputy Prime Minister when it came to power between 2008 and 2012. So it can be expected, that if Ijaz Shah steers clear of fresh controversies and squarely faces Pakistan’s numerous challenges on internal security, the opposition’s objections might subside with time.
Over the past eight months, many questions have been raised about the competence and capacity of the team put together by the Prime Minister to govern the affairs of the federation and two provinces – Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) - where Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) had emerged as the majority party. These reservations have been expressed not only by PTI’s political adversaries but also by independent analysts and media commentators.
On to the optics, the media which had been generally supportive of PM Khan before he came to power, has turned quite critical of him, fuelling growing perceptions of serious incompetence within government quarters. A lot of this is prompted by the expectations the PTI had chalked out for itself, with an entire campaign built on the ethos of a “new Pakistan.” And so to many, major cabinet changes are an admission of that incompetence, a view that has been strengthened by the somewhat uncharitable remarks by the Prime Minister about some members of his team following the cabinet reshuffle.
Experts believe that the worst is yet to come and the Prime Minister has dropped broad hints about possible changes in his provincial teams in Punjab and KP where there is a growing unease about the performance of his two chief ministers. Both of them are generally perceived as being weak and spineless. Furthermore, anticipated changes in these quarters, whenever they may come, will no doubt further damage the image of Khan’s party, throwing into question the competence of the man himself.