Pakistan: Will internal turmoil ever end?
The key factors that will determine Pakistan’s future are: Ability of the current dispensation to hold its ground and restoration of the economy while curbing inflation
The winning of 15 out of 20 provincial seats on offer in the Punjab by-polls led to Imran Khan demanding resignation of the Election Commission and holding of national elections. Losing Punjab and Imran’s demands for national elections added to political uncertainty in Pakistan.
The government comprises opponents, rather than allies, and hence the coalition will always be tenuous. There were doubts on whether the current dispensation would serve its full period, however, after losing Punjab implied that holding elections currently would be giving Imran a walkover. Thus, they announced they would serve their full term.
Added are economic concerns for multiple reasons including the Ukraine war. Pakistan is the third largest importer of Ukrainian wheat. With rising prices, Pakistan would face the brunt. It cannot increase internal wheat prices as it would anger the population. The stock market continues to move downhill due to political turmoil and economic instability. The rupee touched a new low of 226 to a dollar. It is unlikely to regain ground as the dollar remains high.
Federation of Pakistan’s Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) President, Irfan Iqbal Sheikh, stated, “We are not far from a Sri Lanka-like scenario and radical decisions are needed to reverse the situation.’ He added that a law-and-order situation might emerge in the event of any fuel shortages for transportation and electricity generation. Business houses from Karachi have protested against the recently announced power price hike, stating, “It would lead to the closure of businesses, make exports uncompetitive and create job losses.”
The IMF has made its much-awaited announcement to release additional funds, giving a boost to Pakistan’s depleting foreign exchange reserves. The IMF has also sought confirmation from Saudi Arabia on its promise of assisting Pakistan with USD 4 Billion, claiming its release may not be enough for repayment of current dues. Pakistan hopes to obtain funds from friendly countries based on the IMF release. How much would flow is uncertain. The next bond payment is due in December. The world watches if Pakistan will meet its commitments.
Imran Khan won due to multiple reasons. His rant of a foreign conspiracy as also the siding of the establishment with the current dispensation did act in his favour. So did high inflation, currently at 14%, long power cuts and shortfall of essential commodities. He refused to take any blame for deterioration of the Pakistan economy. The victory gave Imran Khan the confidence to display support of the public while throwing more accusations at the government machinery and accusing Rawalpindi of ganging up against him. His future protests would be more forceful and violent as he seeks to enhance pressure on Islamabad.
Rumours from Pakistan indicate that the no-confidence motion against Imran was backed by the army chief and select generals as it was evident that Imran was planning to announce Lt Gen Faiz Hameed as the next chief. This would have upset the applecart and pushed many of his seniors into retirement. In retaliation, Imran launched an open conflict against the army. Such has been his tirade that the army stayed away from intervening in Punjab polls, giving Imran victory.
Imran has exploited his popularity, pushed by an image of honesty, amongst the military’s middle-level rank and file. The army, which controlled Islamabad with firmness now appears to be hesitating. This could prove advantageous to Imran. There is also a possibility that Imran’s PTI governed states, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would refuse to cooperate with the centre adding to governance issues. Imran’s continued ranting of a foreign conspiracy will ensure that relations between Pakistan and the US remain disturbed.
The economic scenario, despite promises by friendly countries and sanction by the IMF remains a concern. Global credit rating of Pakistan slipped from stable to negative after Punjab polls as they added to political uncertainty. Friendly nations may hold back assistance till they are satisfied that Pakistan is politically stable. Demands for elections and increased protests will only damage Pakistan’s internal scenario.
Internally power cuts are unlikely to end soon. Afghanistan, from whom Pakistan currently imports coal for its power plants has again raised its prices. These were recently raised from USD 80 to 200 a ton. They have been revised to USD 280 per ton. A Pakistan delegation visited Afghanistan to resolve the issue, however nothing much emerged except opening trade.
The internal security scenario remains bleak. Talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban continue in Kabul, under the watchful eyes of the Taliban government. The continuation of the ongoing ceasefire is always doubtful. One incident could trigger its end. The Baloch freedom fighters showed their resilience and power by kidnapping and executing a Pakistan army officer, resulting in massive retaliation by Pakistan troops, alienating the population further. To control its restive western provinces, the Pakistan army has sidestepped formations from their eastern borders.
The ruling coalition has realized, after the Punjab loss, that if they are to counter Imran, then they cannot be on the defensive. Hint towards this was given by the current PM, Shehbaz Sharif, when he asked the Election Commission to announce its decision on the foreign funding case of Imran’s political party, PTI. Simultaneously, investigations into corruption charges against Imran’s wife and her close aide, Farah Khan, are in progress.
A committee has been formed to evaluate if Imran and the President could be tried for treason based on the supreme court’s judgement on abrogating the constitution. How it will be accepted by Iman’s supporters needs to be watched. This could result in more rallies, clashes and enhanced uncertainty.
Pakistan has been projecting that as a nuclear state it should not be allowed to collapse. It has begun playing the card that if it fails, its nuclear assets could fall into Jihadi hands. Hence, is hoping for global sympathy and support,mainly economic. Will the world fall for this story is to be seen.
The generals in Islamabad are currently unhappy and would seek to regain their dropping control over Islamabad. With accusations continuing to flow on a daily basis from Imran Khan, they have been pushed to a corner. They are aware of their limitations as Imran holds secrets, release of some could be damaging. Thus, they are compelled to follow a safe and neutral path. This is playing into Imran’s hands. The trolling of the Pakistan army on social media has dented their image. The only option available is to provoke India into an offensive action, thereby regaining national respect. This is a dangerous path as much could go wrong. However, there are limited choices.
Imran’s threats are getting more vocal by the day. A day after winning the elections in Punjab he tweeted, "The only way forward from here is to hold fair and free elections. Any other path will only lead to greater political uncertainty and further economic chaos." How the scenario unfolds in Pakistan remains to be seen. The three main factors which will determine Pakistan’s future are the nature of upcoming protests, ability of the current dispensation to hold its ground and restoration of the economy while curbing inflation.
***The writer is a security and strategic affairs commentator; views expressed are his own