Tough test

Print edition : September 28, 2018

IMRAN KHAN, Prime Minister-elect and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Shah Mahmood Quereshi, Khalid Maqbool, Sardar Akhtar Mengal and others taking the oath as MPs at the first session of Parliament in Islamabad after the general election. The handout picture was made available by the Pakistan National Assembly on August 13. Photo: AFP

Former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, Maulana Fazalur Rehman, PML (N) chief Shahbaz Sharif and Khursheed Shah at a conference of opposition parties in Islamabad on August 2. Photo: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the PPP, arrives at the National Assembly on August 13. Photo: FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s promise of a “naya Pakistan” will have to be put on hold in view of a paucity of funds coupled with the United States’ threat to veto an emergency IMF bailout.

IMRAN KHAN realised his dream of becoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan finally after he handily defeated Shahbaz Sharif, his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) rival for the post, in the National Assembly elections held on July 25. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the third largest party, had chosen to abstain rather than support the PML(N)’s candidate for the top job. Its leadership, however, insists that it remains opposed to Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) at the centre. In fact, it joined hands with the rest of the opposition in criticising the conduct of the elections. As expected, most of the smaller parties and independents chose to cast their lot with the PTI, giving it the numbers required to ensure a smooth victory for Imran Khan. Many expected the new Prime Minister to adopt a conciliatory approach towards the opposition as he opened his innings. Instead, he chose to hit out against the opposition as soon as he took office.

For the first time in the country’s parliamentary history, the opposition did not formally congratulate the Prime Minister-elect. It responded to Imran Khan’s opening speech in a raucous manner. As soon as he got ready to deliver his prepared speech, the opposition benches rose in unison and shouted, “vote thief, not acceptable”. Departing from the script, within no time Imran Khan reverted to his old rabble-rousing style. “I did not climb on any dictator’s shoulder” to become the Prime Minister, he asserted, and compared himself to the architect of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. “Only one leader struggled more than me and that was my hero Jinnah,” he said. He then went on to indirectly accuse the opposition of indulging in massive corruption. “The money that was laundered, I will bring it back—the money that should have gone towards health, education and water, went into people’s pockets,” he alleged.

Dubious election process

Many Pakistanis believe that the July 25 elections were far from fair and free. Weeks after the elections, empty ballot boxes and torn ballot papers were found in many parts of Pakistan. As is well documented, the Army and the intelligence agencies played an insidious role in facilitating the elevation of their favoured candidate to the Prime Minister’s office. The political hounding of the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in particular, and the PML(N) leadership by the judiciary in tandem with the military leadership in the run-up to the elections was an important factor that tilted the scales in favour of Imran Khan and the PTI. A leading Pakistani newspaper, The News, reported that 90 per cent of Form 45s were unsigned by the returning officers. As per law, the results of the voting in a polling booth have to be verified by the returning officers in Form 45.

Responding to Imran Khan’s belligerent speech, Shahbaz Sharif, younger brother of Nawaz Sharif and the Leader of the Opposition, said that Pakistan had witnessed the worst elections in its history “in terms of rigging”. He accused the authorities of shutting down the results transmission system on the night of July 25 and delaying the announcement of the results by 48 hours. He demanded that the Election Commission submit a report to the House on the conduct of the elections. The former Chief Minister of Punjab said that there was an urgent need to amend the Election Act of 2017 to ensure that “no one can rob the vote of its sanctity”. 

Shahbaz Sharif said the opposition would have no other alternative but to take to the streets if the government did not set up an investigation commission. He reminded Imran Khan of the allegations of rigging he had made against the PML(N) after it won an absolute majority in the 2013 elections and how he started an agitation immediately against the government led by Nawaz Sharif. “We will not let you run from this. We will hold you accountable for stealing votes,” Shahbaz Sharif said.

The Pakistani media have credited PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto, who has made his debut in Parliament, with giving an incisive speech. He said the “Prime Minister-select” should now work for all Pakistanis, including “those he called living corpses, the ones he called donkeys, the ones he referred to as sheep and goats”. Bilawal hoped Imran Khan would give up his hateful rhetoric. 

However, questions are being asked about the rationale behind the PPP’s decision to abstain from the vote and hand Imran Khan a lopsided victory in Parliament. The PPP leadership had originally agreed to join hands with the PML(N). As a quid pro quo, the PML(N) had extended support to the PPP’s candidate for the post of Speaker of the National Assembly. At the eleventh hour, the PPP leadership took the stand that it would support the PML(N) if it chose another candidate in the place of Shahbaz Sharif to challenge Imran Khan for the post of Prime Minister. Shahbaz Sharif’s personal attacks on PPP chairman Asif Zardari during the campaign were the reason for its demand. The real reason, however, could have been a behind-the-scenes deal between Imran Khan and those who backed him. Zardari is facing serious “money laundering” charges.

Imran Khan has a virtually impossible task ahead, that of fulfilling his promise of a ushering in a “naya Pakistan”. On the campaign trail, he had blamed the Nawaz Sharif government for all the ills plaguing Pakistan, including chronic electricity outages and skyrocketing prices. After coming to power in 2013, Nawaz Sharif had made significant headway in streamlining the power sector and making it more efficient. He had rescued the Pakistan economy to an extent by getting massive Chinese investment for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Imran Khan was then critical of many aspects of the CPEC.

The new Finance Minister, Asad Umar, said the CPEC agreement would be placed before Parliament “in the interest of transparency”. The agreement, he said, would only be “reopened” if clear cases of corruption emerged. The United States is threatening to veto an emergency International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, which the Pakistan government had requested, citing the country’s growing indebtedness to China. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said U.S. taxpayers’ money should not be used to help Pakistan repay its debt to China. 

China recently shored up Pakistan’s economy by sanctioning an emergency loan of $6 billion. Pakistan’s foreign currency reserves were down to $9 billion in the beginning of August, just enough to cover imports for the next two months. Its foreign debt stands at an astronomical $229 billion.

Foreign policy challenges

Imran Khan wants to have good relations with Beijing and Washington, but this may require a tough balancing act. The Donald Trump administration has decided to adopt a tough line on Pakistan. In one of his tweets at the beginning of the year, Trump said the U.S. had “foolishly” given $33 billion in aid over the past 15 years and got “nothing but lies and deceit” in return. The U.S. is even threatening to revoke Pakistan’s status as “a major non-NATO ally” as it makes moves to forge a military alliance with India. In the last week of August, the Pentagon announced that it was seeking to relocate $300 million in military aid to Pakistan because of the country’s “lack of decisive action” in support of the U.S. policies in Afghanistan. 

Randall G. Schriver, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Defence for Asia-Pacific Security Affairs, speaking to a U.S. think tank, said the Trump administration was planning more punitive actions against Pakistan unless it changed its policies on Afghanistan and downsized its relationship with China. 

Western governments are, however, aware that a change in the political leadership in Pakistan will not have a serious impact on two key aspects of the country’s foreign policy—one, relating to its nuclear arsenal and the other, its handling of militant groups. Both of these are handled by the powerful military and security establishment.

For dialogue with India

Imran Khan has sent positive signals to the Indian government. He emphasised that dialogue between the two countries was the only way to resolve bilateral issues, including the conflict in Kashmir, and “is the best way to alleviate poverty and uplift the people of the subcontinent”. He said those in India targeting Navjot Singh Sidhu, the former Indian test cricketer and currently Minster in the Punjab government, for attending his oath-taking ceremony were doing a “great disservice to peace in the subcontinent”. Sidhu was the only prominent guest from India at Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony. 

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Quereshi said coming to the negotiating table and talking peace was the only option. At the same time, he warned India against “resorting to adventurism”, pointing out that Pakistan was a neighbour that was also a nuclear power. Quereshi dismissed claims that foreign policy with regard to India was formulated at the military headquarters. “Let me be clear—foreign policy will be made here,” he said. 

The Army chief, General Javed Bajwa, had signalled some months ago the need for speedy resumption of talks. Imran Khan’s Cabinet is filled with people close to the military establishment. Many of them were Ministers when General Pervez Musharraf was the President.

The Indian government has denied Quereshi’s claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had indicated in a letter to Imran Khan that bilateral talks would resume soon. India has given the impression that it is better to establish a line of communication with the powerful military and security establishment than with the government of the day. Foreign governments were comfortable dealing directly with Nawaz Sharif, who was elected in 2013 with a huge popular mandate. In the eyes of the international community, Imran Khan owes his narrow victory to the help rendered by the security establishment.

Imran Khan’s immediate challenge is the economy. His promise of a “naya Pakistan”, like Modi’s “Ache Din”, is expected to turn out to be hollow. He had promised to create jobs, but now he has declared a period of economic austerity. His promise of ushering in an Islamic welfare state will have to wait indefinitely. The IMF will lay down strict conditions while bailing out Pakistan. Among other things, it will demand an end to energy subsidies. Imran Khan will have to put on hold his plans for reviving the education and health sectors because of a paucity of funds. The Army, which controls significant economic assets, will continue to play a prominent role in the country’s politics. Imran Khan, like his predecessors, will strain at the leash, sooner rather than later. But, as the country’s history has shown, it is difficult for the tail to wag the dog in Pakistan.