Wait for president to endorse army chief appointment adds to Pakistan political turmoil

Lieutenant General Asim Munir, who was named as the new chief of army staff (COAS) of Pakistan, in this handout picture distributed by the Inter Services Public Relations, Islamabad Pakistan November 24, 2022. (ISPR)/Handout via REUTERS)
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Updated 24 November 2022

Wait for president to endorse army chief appointment adds to Pakistan political turmoil

  • Pakistan’s defense minister hopes President Arif Alvi, a close aide of Imran Khan, will endorse the PM's selection
  • Khawaja Muhammad Asif says the prime minister’s advice is binding on president, as Alvi holds meeting with Khan in Lahore

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s defense minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said on Thursday he was hopeful that President Arif Alvi would endorse Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's selection for new army chief.

Sharif picked Lt. Gen. Asim Munir to replace outgoing General Qamar Javed Bajwa to lead the country’s all-powerful army.

Lt. Gen. Sahir Shamshad Mirza has also been appointed chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee.

The wait for the president, a key ally of Sharif's main political rival and ex-premier Imran Khan, to sign off on the new chief's selection heightened an already tense political landscape in Pakistan. 

“The summary has been sent to the president and we hope he will not create any hurdle in it as the appointment has been done according to the constitution and law,” the defense minister said during a media interaction in Islamabad.

He added he was optimistic the president would not make the appointment “controversial and end this political anxiety and uncertainty in the country.”

As the government announced the new chief, some experts raised concerns Alvi might not immediately ratify the summary and try to drag the process.

The fears have come in the backdrop of Khan saying in an interview on Wednesday that the president, was in contact with him and would consult him on the appointment of the top slots in the military.

Since his ouster from power in April via a parliamentary vote of no-confidence, Khan has been demanding fresh elections and has accused the government of wanting to pick an army chief of its choice instead of considering merit.

“This advice of the prime minister is binding and the president should not act on any other advice,” the defense minister said, adding that Alvi should fulfill his responsibility to allow the country and its economy to move ahead.

Asked about the government’s future strategy if the president stopped the summary, he said the ruling administration would weigh its options once such a situation came up.

Meanwhile, Alvi held a meeting with the PTI chairman at his residence in Lahore this afternoon to discuss the overall situation and Khan’s next move over the matter.

“The meeting between President Arif Alvi and Imran Khan continued for 45 minutes,” confirmed senior PTI vice president Chaudhry Fawad Hussain. “Both leaders discussed political, constitutional and legal matters related the appointment of the new army chief.”

Hussain said it was decided in the meeting that the matter would be handled within the legal and constitutional ambit, though he did not provide information on any decisions taken by both leaders.

“The presidency will issue a handout containing details of the meeting between President Arif Alvi and Imran Khan,” he said.

Speaking to Arab News, some analysts said political stability and economic situation would be the main challenges facing the new military leadership.

“The new army chief will have to do a lot of damage control and need to do something to bring the political temperature in Pakistan down by making sure that some consensus is reached,” Dr. Huma Baqai, a defense expert, said.

She noted that the political turmoil surrounding the army chief’s appointment was not over which was clear from the recent statements made by Khan.

“The prime concern of the new army chief will be to ensure the economy gets on the right track because that is a major concern right now and has become an issue for Pakistan’s shrinking sovereignty,” she added.

Policy analyst Syed Muhammad Ali said the country was facing huge governance challenges and was still suffering from the disastrous impact of the recent floods.

He said it was imperative to deal with such problems by restoring political stability and ensuring better civil-military relations.

“It is essential for Pakistan’s new military leaders to focus their energies and efforts to improve political stability in the country without which the nation’s economy cannot be revived or governance improved,” Ali told Arab News.

Brothers accused of sparking blasphemy riot against Christians in Pakistan last year released

Updated 5 sec ago

Brothers accused of sparking blasphemy riot against Christians in Pakistan last year released

  • The brothers were detained on suspicion of defacing the Holy Qur’an in Jaranwala where a mob vandalized Churches
  • Christians make up around two percent of Pakistan’s population and occupy one of the lowest rungs in society

LAHORE: Two brothers accused of blasphemous acts that sparked a mob in Pakistan to ransack homes and churches in a Christian enclave last year have been freed from jail, their lawyer said Friday.
More than 80 Christian homes and 19 churches were vandalized by crowds in the eastern city of Jaranwala last August, after accusations spread that a Holy Qur’an had been desecrated.
Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in deeply conservative, Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam have provoked deadly vigilantism.
While police rounded up more than 125 suspected rioters, they also detained two Christian brothers on suspicion of having defaced a Holy Qur’an – a violation of Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws which can carry the death penalty.
But the brothers’ lawyer Tahir Bashir told AFP they had been freed after an anti-terror court declined to bring their case to trial on Thursday.
“Without a trial, no suspect can be detained indefinitely in jail,” Bashir said, declining to publicly name his clients out of fear for their safety.
“They are free, they are with their family. They were very happy to be released,” he added.
Hundreds of Christians fled Jaranwala’s Christian quarter last summer when rioters surged in, setting churches ablaze and raiding homes.
At its peak the crowd numbered around 5,000 and was spurred by mosque loudspeakers announcing a Holy Qur’an had been torn, scrawled with offensive words and stuck to the walls of a local mosque.
Christians, who make up around two percent of Pakistan’s population, occupy one of the lowest rungs in society and are frequently targeted with spurious blasphemy allegations.
Politicians have also been assassinated, lawyers murdered and students lynched over such accusations.
Last week, police were forced to intervene in the eastern city of Lahore when a woman wearing a shirt adorned with Arabic calligraphy was surrounded by a mob accusing her of blasphemy.
The crowd of men said the clothing depicted the Holy Qur’an but it was in fact emblazoned with the Arabic word for “beautiful.”
The woman issued an apology for causing offense, but none of the men were arrested.
Pakistan’s top Supreme Court judge has also been targeted by veiled death threats recently after ordering the release of a man accused of disseminating a blasphemous text.

Inflation in Pakistan hits 23.1%, reaching its lowest point since June 2022

Updated 26 min 47 sec ago

Inflation in Pakistan hits 23.1%, reaching its lowest point since June 2022

  • Pakistan faces historically high inflation, though the situation has improved from 38 percent recorded last year in May
  • Given the February inflation rate, experts predict the central bank to begin monetary policy easing from this month

KARACHI: Pakistan’s inflation rate was recorded at 23.1 percent in February, marking its lowest level since June 2022, on an annual basis despite surging food and energy costs, according to official data released on Friday.
Pakistan continues to face historically high inflation, though the situation has improved from the all-time high level of 38 percent recorded last year in May.
Last month, the prices of tomatoes and cigarettes saw substantial increases of 114.6 percent and 71.2 percent, respectively, on an annual basis. Condiments and spices rose by 55.3 percent, sugar by 53.4 percent, fresh vegetables by 46.2 percent and wheat flour by 45 percent.
In the non-food category, gas charges skyrocketed by 318.7 percent, electricity charges by 74.9 percent, transport services by 35.1 percent, textbooks by 34.7 percent, newspapers by 34.2 percent and accommodation services by 29.5 percent.
February’s inflation, the lowest in 20 months, suggests a potential easing in the country’s monetary policy stance.
“The low inflation rate was expected and interestingly despite incorporating recent gas and petroleum price increase in February the number is low. We will see this trend continue in the future and inflation trajectory will be downward,” Tahir Abbas, head of research at Arif Habib Limited, told Arab News.
Given the February inflation rate, experts predict the central bank will begin monetary policy easing from March onwards, with the market anticipating an indicative interest rate cut of around 1 percent this month.
Since June last year, the State Bank of Pakistan has maintained the interest rate at an all-time high of 22 percent.
The central bank recently adjusted its average inflation forecast for the current fiscal year to 23-25 percent, up from 20-22 percent, due to hikes in energy prices.

Race for new Pakistan finance minister heats up ahead of crucial IMF negotiations

Updated 01 March 2024

Race for new Pakistan finance minister heats up ahead of crucial IMF negotiations

  • Ishaq Dar remains the top contender, though he may be declared deputy PM if he does not get the portfolio
  • Pakistan’s interim finance minister and president of the country’s largest HBL bank are also said to be in the race

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s newly-formed ruling alliance is yet to finalize its finance minister, the person who has to lead an immediate effort to negotiate a new International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, sources familiar with the discussions said.
The struggling $350 billion economy has a narrow path to recovery and the current IMF agreement expires on April 11, with critical external financing avenues linked to securing another extended program.
Former four-time finance minister Ishaq Dar remains the top contender, according to two sources in his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, which is leading the coalition.
PML-N’s Shehbaz Sharif has been nominated by the alliance to be prime minister in an election scheduled for March 3. He will announce his cabinet, including the finance minister, shortly after being elected.
But Dar is not the only candidate being considered, the sources said. Despite being a relative of, and close aide to, PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, many political allies have criticized Dar’s handling of the economy in the last coalition set up.
He, however, has defended his actions, saying he had to take tough measures to avert a sovereign default by securing the IMF program, which former Prime Minister Imran Khan had scuttled days before leaving his office, a charge Khan denies.
Pakistan struggled for over four months to lock in the stand-by arrangement last summer when Dar was finance minister, and it took the intervention of his prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, to secure a last-ditch deal.
Dar also regularly criticized the IMF on public platforms in the middle of negotiations, and has long favored market interventions to prop up the Pakistani rupee – something the IMF has warned against.
If Dar doesn’t get the portfolio, his party might consider creating a position of deputy prime minister for him, one of the sources in the PML-N said.
Also being considered are caretaker Finance Minister Shamshad Akhtar, a former central bank governor, who is overseeing key policy measures under the current IMF program, both sources said.
Akhtar has been a key part of the caretaker set up that has been praised by the IMF for “decisive policy efforts” to maintain stability.
Another name being considered is Muhammad Aurangzeb, president and chief executive officer of the country’s largest bank, Habib Bank Limited, the sources said.
Aurangzeb had also served as the CEO of JP Morgan’s Global Corporate Bank based in Asia.
Akhtar did not respond to a Reuters request for a comment and Aurangzeb’s HBL said it would not comment on “rumors and speculations.”
A PML-N spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Dar himself told reporters before the parliament’s inaugural session on Thursday that there was no decision yet when asked if he would be the choice for finance minister again.
PML-N senior leader Irfan Siddiqui told the local newspaper The News that Dar will “most probably” be picked for the post.
Aside from negotiating a new and extended IMF program, the new finance minister will have about three months to prepare a federal budget that will need to strike a difficult balance between tough reforms and rejuvenating a struggling economy.
The PML-N, leading a minority government, will be relying on the support of different parties to pass critical legislation, with alliance partner Pakistan Peoples Party saying it would support the government on an issue-to-issue basis.
Efforts to assuage growing public anger at record inflation hovering around 30 percent will also be challenging with limited fiscal space.
“Pakistan needs someone who has broad and in-depth international experience to introduce the kind of reforms that have helped many other countries to come out of economic crises,” said Yousuf Nazar, a London-based economist and former Citigroup banker.
He, however, declined to say who was best suited.

Foreign investment in Pakistan’s stock market surges to $19.9 million since Feb. 8 polls

Updated 01 March 2024

Foreign investment in Pakistan’s stock market surges to $19.9 million since Feb. 8 polls

  • Financial experts describe the development as a result of growing investor confidence in the country
  • The stock market benchmark closes at 65,325 points after National Assembly held its first two sessions

KARACHI: Pakistan witnessed a substantial increase in foreign investment through the stock market in the last three weeks after international corporations and overseas Pakistanis brought $19.9 million into the country, reflecting improved investor confidence in the wake of the Feb. 8 polls, as confirmed by financial experts on Friday.
After months of uncertainty surrounding the general elections, Pakistan held the polls last month, though their conduct and outcome led to widespread speculations of vote fraud. The split mandate in the electoral contest was followed by political negotiations that led to a power-sharing agreement between Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Despite the allegations of rigging and ensuing political protests, the elections brought clarity to Pakistan’s capital market, which was reflected in the bullish sentiments including the rise in foreign equity investment.
Foreign corporations invested around $18.5 million in the equity market, while overseas Pakistanis bought shares worth $1.4 million after Feb. 8. In the last three weeks, the net investment amounted to $19.9 million, according to the National Clearing Company of Pakistan Limited (NCCPL), an institution that provides clearing and settlement services to the Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX).
“The surge in the foreign portfolio investment reflects the clarity in the market after holding of general elections,” Khurram Schehzad, CEO of Alpha Beta Core, a financial advisory firm, told Arab News.
In February 2024 alone, the foreign investment amounted to $25.7 million as compared to the $8.5 million recorded in the corresponding month last year.
During July to February 2024, net foreign investment stood at about $59.6 million in equity market as compared to $16.3 million recorded during the same period in 2023.
Schehzad said the market would further consolidate after the formation of the next government.
Discussing the development, Ali Nawaz, CEO of Chase Securities, described the rise in foreign investment in the country’s equity market as “promising.”
“This can be attributed to factors like improved economic stability, successful International Monetary Fund loan agreement, and potentially positive policy changes anticipated under the new government,” he told Arab News.
“Once a stable government is formed, clearer economic direction and potential reforms will further incentivize foreign investors, making Pakistan’s stock market even more attractive,” he added.
The country’s equity market has witnessed a strong rebound during the latter half of the previous month, after the vote fraud allegations.
The stock market closed weekend trading session at 65,325 points after easing of political uncertainty. The formation of a coalition government at the center is expected to keep the investor sentiment positive.
“Stocks closed higher amid reports of inflation falling to 23 percent for February 2024 and the National Assembly session held to form the new government,” Ahsan Mehanti, CEO of Arif Habib Corporation, commented.
Mehanti said the American assurance to support Pakistan in its effort to break free from the vicious cycle of debt and international financing also played a key role in keeping the bullish sentiments alive at PSX.
Matthew Miller, spokesperson of the US State Department, noted on Thursday Pakistan’s economic stability was crucial to the long-term strength of its government.
“Pakistan’s new government must immediately prioritize the economic situation because the policies over the next several months will be crucial to maintaining economic stability for Pakistanis,” he said while responding to a question about the political situation of the country.

Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa CM-elect demands top election official resign over alleged vote-rigging

Updated 23 min 21 sec ago

Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa CM-elect demands top election official resign over alleged vote-rigging

  • Ali Amin Gandapur says his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party was not given a playing field in polls, let alone a level one
  • Ahead of the Feb. 8 national election, Khan’s PTI party was barred from contesting the polls for breaching electoral laws

PESHAWAR: Ali Amin Gandapur, who was elected as the chief minister of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, on Friday demanded the country’s top election official resign over alleged rigging of Feb. 8 national election in the South Asian country.
The provincial assembly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Friday elected Gandapur, backed by jailed former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, as new chief minister of the province.
Gandapur secured 90 votes in Friday’s election, while his opponent, Dr. Ibadullah Khan, from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party secured 16 votes. The Awami National Party (ANP) and the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) boycotted the election.
Ahead of Feb. 8 national election, Khan’s PTI party was barred from contesting the polls for breaching electoral laws. Resultantly, the PTI fielded its members as independent candidates, who later joined the minority Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) party to claim reserved seats.
But independent candidates, most loyal to Khan, swept the polls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by winning 91 out of 113 provincial seats. They were followed by the JUI that secured seven seats, while the rest went to other parties.
“The rigging that has happened, it was the responsibility of the election commission to hold free and fair election constitutionally. They have failed in fulfilling their responsibility. I hereby demand the chief election commissioner tender resignation,” Gandapur said in his maiden speech after being elected as the chief minister.
He urged the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the chief justice to form an independent judicial commission and provide justice to people for their “stolen” mandate.
Khan’s PTI party had been severely hamstrung ahead of the polls, with rallies banned, its party symbol taken away, and dozens of its candidates rejected from eligibility to stand.
But despite facing what it says a state-backed crackdown, the independents, most loyal to Khan, stunned observers by winning the highest 101 seats in parliament and sweeping the polls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“History, not only in Pakistan but in the world, has not witnessed the cruelty which has been faced by our party, our leader and our workers,” Gandapur said.
“Our party symbol was stolen, forget about the level playing field, we were not given a playing field [in the election]. My leader Imran Khan has been put in jail in fake FIRs [first information reports], the reason for his arrest is he spoke for Pakistan and its people, of the sovereignty of Pakistan, of Kashmir and Palestine.”
Khan has been in jail on a slew of charges, which the ex-premier maintains are “politically motivated.” The ex-premier accuses Pakistan’s powerful military of sidelining him and his party from politics. The military denies Khan’s accusations and says it does not interfere in political affairs.
In his speech, Gandapur demanded immediate release of Khan and called for an “open, free and fair trial” of the ex-premier. He demanded all cases registered against his party’s members and supporters be quashed within a week.
“We don’t want revenge as this country and these institutions are ours, but we want reforms,” he said. “We want a system where no one in the country should do unjust and take the law into their hands and take unlawful action against anyone.”
The newly elected chief minister announced he did not seek revenge against his rivals and promised to take all stake-holders along in governing the province.
“I am everyone’s chief minister, I won’t take any political revenge,” Gandapur said. “No person or organization will be allowed to act against the law.”
Dr. Ibadullah congratulated the newly elected chief minister, speaker and deputy speaker of the KP Assembly.
“We have not been sent to abuse each other, the public has sent us and are expecting from us,” he said. “The whole opposition will stand with you [government] in good acts.”
Later, Speaker Babar Saleem Swati adjourned the assembly session for an indefinite period.
Gandapur will take oath of his office at 3pm on Saturday, which would be administered by KP Governor Hajji Ghulam Ali.
On Thursday, the provincial assembly elected Swati as the speaker and Suraiya Bibi as the deputy speaker of the house.