As political battles intensify, the government is here to stay
From the looks of it, Pakistan's current Shahbaz Sharif-led coalition government is not leaving office any time soon. It seems to have got into the business of managing the economy and coming up with policy decisions. The IMF funding desperately needed by Pakistan is almost finalized, the value of the rupee has taken a turn for the positive, demands of the business community ranging from energy prices for exporters to allowing longer business hours etc are finally being addressed. Some progress in state business including the signing of a landmark trade deal with Turkey is also underway. The downward trend in oil prices is also helping the government.
Indeed, enormous economic problems still persist as the inflation rate has touched an unprecedented 40 percent, foreign exchange reserves continue to decline while Pakistan's trade gap with nine regional countries continues to widen. Hence while the government may be in a relatively better functional mode on the economic front, compared to the last four months, the public is not experiencing relief on a more personal financial front.
However, can the public’s resentment over these conditions translate into political trouble for the Shahbaz-led coalition government? The answer is simple: Only to the extent that the PTI is able to politically channelize this resentment and convert it into a destabilizing factor. However, the PTI in the last few weeks appears to have switched its political direction away from the high gear street confrontational approach, towards engagement with the multiple issues that have surfaced for PTI on the legal and political fronts.
PTI chairman Imran Khan in his August 10 speech clearly pointed to this change in his party’s political direction when he said that street power was his strength but that because of current economic conditions he was avoiding it. We will remain peaceful till the end, he added.
Khan, in keeping with his earlier position since the vote of no confidence that ousted him, insists that there is a conspiracy against him and the PTI. He claims that while he will be kept out of the next elections, his party will be prevented from winning the election. He also claimed in his speech that a video recording of the “closed room” planning to oust him was also with him. Khan’s approach in his last few speeches is more studied and cautious. It’s a far cry from the unrelenting approach he took in the days up to May 25 and immediately after.
Can the public’s resentment over these conditions translate into political trouble for the Shahbaz-led coalition government? The answer is simple: Only to the extent that the PTI is able to politically channelize this resentment.
Political developments too seem to point towards the continuing PTI vs. the rest battle, but some factors will mean that PTI will not be in a hurry to push out the government. It’s different now. While there is no definitive sign of any decrease in his street power, today’s Imran Khan is more absorbed with the challenges that confront him and the party. He appears a pensive man, not one in a hurry to dislodge the government. The challenge he faces is unprecedented since he began politics, and as paradoxical is the muscle of his street power.
Of the multiple challenges that Khan faces, five are significant. On the legal front, Khan has been taken to court on the Tosha Khana case, specifically for not declaring the assets accrued to him after selling very expensive watches. The government is looking for Khan’s disqualification in this case. The judgement of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) also questions Khan’s credibility on the basis of his signature on the party’s untrue accounts statement. The government is intensifying legal pressures on Khan as he seeks to push back not only through legal means but through his political stance that all this is part of a broader conspiracy to weaken him politically.
Two, the Shahbaz Gill comments on a local channel tutoring the army on how all orders of their seniors aren’t to be obeyed, have spelt trouble largely for Gill but also for the PTI leadership. Gill’s call for mutiny among the forces invokes multiple laws against him. PTI has been quick to disown and also distance itself from the statement. As long as his interrogation continues and the case against him continues, Gill and the party will both remain in a difficult spot with the government insisting, with no evidence, that Gill was stating the party position.
Three, an issue that the PTI has to address is the US factor in PTI’s politics. Although PTI keeps insisting there was a conspiracy involving US funds and Pakistani politicians and local ‘facilitators’ to oust Imran Khan, in practice the PTI has a different approach. Its KPK government has hosted the US ambassador, received development funds and 36 vehicles for pandemic monitoring. There is news of PTI hiring a lobbying firm in the US and Khan is in contact with the US ambassador. PTI denies this and the US embassy source neither denied nor confirmed the Khan-ambassador contact.
Four, as the clash of the government’s and Khan’s political lines against each other intensifies, there are political contests that PTI seeks to win. It must show it is capable of administering Pakistan's largest province Punjab and also win by-elections for the nine National Assembly seats. PTI seems all set to battle at the hustings with Imran Khan contesting from nine seats in the by-elections scheduled for end September. The Islamabad High Court has already rejected the PTI plea to cancel the by elections. PTI will go all out to manage a good showing in the elections, to push back, psychologically the current political pressures and to boost its supporters’ morale.
Beyond all these challenges, Khan faces the likely return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who was ousted in July 2017 after a Supreme Court ruling.
Khan’s most critical strength in the past few months has indeed been his massive public following, the support that won him the incredible 14 seat victory in Punjab. With the cards stacked against him, the question is: How far will street power help him retain his major place in national politics?
The August 13 PTI public meeting on the eve of Pakistan’s 75th anniversary will demonstrate if all the political and legal moves against Khan have undermined his political strength?
Finally, amid all this intensified political contestation, there are no signs that the government will go home or call early elections.
— Nasim Zehra is an author, analyst and national security expert.