Rising political tension and battle against the pandemic
There is never a dull moment when it comes to Pakistan’s politics. With an aggressive opposition baying for his blood and widening cracks within the fractious coalition, the prime minister finds himself in a tight spot. With the COVID-19 pandemic staring in the country’s face, it makes the situation far more serious.
Surely the passing of the budget has come as a relief for the ruling elite, but the crisis of confidence is far from over. A major challenge for the prime minister is how to save the coalition from falling apart. Meanwhile, a seemingly more united opposition has stepped up its attack against the administration, targeting the prime minister in particular with weapons provided by the government’s mishandling of the ongoing pandemic, the worsening economic situation and various scandals highlighting the crisis of governance.
Public remarks of cabinet ministers have further added to the government’s woes. The old “minus-one” formula — changing the prime minister — is once again being talked about. Such suggestion is certainly not workable but that has at least forced the prime minister to come down from his pedestal and try and placate disgruntled allies and appease party dissidents.
In order to do so, the prime minister has recently claimed that there was no threat to his government and boasted: “We are the only choice.” Some observers took the prime minister’s remarks as meant for the security establishment, i.e. “We are still your best bet.” It is evident that the military’s continued support is critical to keeping intact a fractious ruling coalition.
The increasing political tension has also affected Pakistan’s battle against the coronavirus. There has been a massive spike in the infection cases because the government’s reckless and premature policy of reopening economic activity during the month of Ramadan, which ignored warnings by local and international health experts. That wiped out the success of earlier lockdowns in mitigating the spread of the disease.
A seemingly more united opposition has stepped up its attack against the administration, targeting the prime minister in particular with weapons provided by the government’s mishandling of the ongoing pandemic, the worsening economic situation and various scandals highlighting the crisis of governance.
Although the spike in infection may have receded a bit, the situation is far from being under control. Doctors and health experts warned of a new surge in the coming weeks, during Eid Al-Adha and the month of Muharram. What has made the situation more alarming is that the government has reduced testing in order to show a lower number of registered COVID-19 cases
The country is back to a “smart lockdown” after a month of mayhem that has seen a relentless rise in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases. There may be some signs of panic in the corridors of power, yet there is no coherent strategy to deal with the crisis. The leadership continues to sow confusion with its flip-flops. There is still no sense of seriousness though the daily death toll remains close to 100.
Many political observers believe that the government is not showing itself to be capable of rational judgment. Almost two years in power, it is still struggling to find a direction and is lacking in several areas. Policy bungling, whether it involves sugar or petroleum, is conveniently blamed on some unidentified mafias.
It is widely believed that mid-term elections will not provide any solution to the multiple challenges the country is facing at the moment. In fact, it will further intensify political polarization, which this country cannot afford.
There is an urgent need for a broader political consensus on dealing with the serious health, economic and governance crisis. That is only possible if the prime minister accepts the gravity of the situation. There is still time for Prime Minister Imran Khan to salvage the situation and take the battle against the pandemic more seriously.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.