Multiple challenges to test the Pakistani government
Prime Minister Imran Khan faces multiple challenges in the year ahead especially with general elections now little over a year away. His government confronts both domestic and external tests in the year that will determine his electoral fortunes in 2023.
The most consequential for his political future – and that for the country – is the economic situation. This is becoming more challenging with soaring inflation and shortage of gas which has hit people hard in winter. It has fueled rising public discontent that has been reflected in a series of opinion polls. The PTI government’s finance supplementary bill – dubbed a mini-budget – is being steered through Parliament amid vociferous opposition from political rivals who accuse it of mismanaging the economy.
The mini budget contains fiscal and other measures – so called prior actions – that are conditions for the IMF to resume its program and release urgently needed funds to Pakistan. The sharp increase in financing gaps in the government’s budget and the country’s trade account as well as rising debt make an early resumption of the IMF program essential. But because prior actions such as raising electricity tariffs and the fuel price as well as other tax measures will add to people’s economic hardship it will exact a political price. The government is caught between a rock and a hard place. It needs Fund money to avert a financial crisis but implementing the required fiscal measures will dent the government’s popularity.
The chief ministers that Prime Minister Khan has chosen to run the provinces of KP and Punjab are weak figures who have no grip on the party.
The government could have mitigated this dilemma if it had taken these actions a year ago and secured the IMF package then. Delay imposed an avoidable economic cost – foreign exchange reserves depleted, pressure mounted on the rupee, debt soared and market confidence eroded. The government’s ill-timed expansionary budget last year only made matters worse. Now it not only has to reverse course but do it a time when general elections are not that far.
On the political front too, the government confronts imposing challenges. The setback the ruling party faced in recent local elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) has laid bare its eroding political base in a province that has long been its stronghold. PTI came third in over half the contests in the first phase of local government elections in seventeen provincial districts. It lost several mayoral elections but its failure to win the mayor’s post in the provincial capital was a stunning blow as the party had won all the national and provincial seats from Peshawar in the 2018 polls. This followed earlier defeats in a series of by-elections to national and provincial assembly seats in both KP and Punjab and in cantonment board elections in Punjab.
These political setbacks indicate voter dissatisfaction with the PTI government’s overall performance and growing public anger with the rising cost of living. In fact, inflation has become a politically explosive issue which many ruling party ministers themselves acknowledge as the principal reason for PTI’s dismal performance in KP’s election. Incumbency at a time when people are burdened by skyrocketing prices and shortage of gas supplies has placed Prime Minister Khan’s government at a distinct political disadvantage.
The disorganized and ill-disciplined state of the party has also been a key factor behind its electoral setbacks. In KP for example, many party members defied party discipline to contest as independents. The chief ministers that Prime Minister Khan has chosen to run the provinces of KP and Punjab are weak figures who have no grip on the party. Nor have they shown the leadership needed to rally the party in the province. The Prime Minister himself has found little time for party matters leaving PTI in a state of factionalized disorder. After the KP setback he dissolved party organizations across the country but it will need more than this to turn the party into a winning electoral machine which is what is required way ahead of 2023.
Political management has not been a skill learnt or honed by PTI leaders perhaps because they have relied on the establishment to mobilize majorities and support to pass legislation in Parliament and keep coalition allies in line. But this weakness will have to be addressed sooner rather than later as it is unclear whether the ruling party will be able to elicit the same backing as it did in the last general election from the establishment, now keen to establish its neutrality.
On the foreign policy front too, a number of challenges will test the Imran Khan government. The unsettled situation in Taliban run Afghanistan will require careful handling. Even as Pakistan extends all kinds of help to its western neighbor to avert a humanitarian and economic collapse, issues of potential discord with Kabul also have to be resolved. The most important of these being the TTP, which continues to have a base in Afghanistan from where it carries out attacks into Pakistani territory. Relations with eastern neighbor India remain frozen with no possibility in the near term of formal dialogue resuming. Tensions have to be managed in a fraught environment in which India’s repressive actions continue in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir where the situation can flare up any time to further escalate tensions.
Prime Minister Khan’s ability to address these challenges, especially growing economic discontent, will have a decisive bearing on his party’s prospects in looming elections.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha