August 12, 2018: Turbulent times for a new PM

Imran Khan’s ascension to the Islamabad throne is not without its pitfalls. As he may have already realised, the ride in the years ahead will be everything but smooth. This is why pundits have been focusing on the first hundred days of his government as critical to the stability and popularity of his government. It would be unfair for anyone to expect miracles in the first few months of Khan’s government but the challenge of governing Pakistan with a thin parliamentary majority are Herculean, to say the least.

Factionalism within political parties is not uncommon. However, the splits within party ranks are evident and it took some time for the PTI chief to nominate the Chief Minister for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. To date, the candidate for the Punjab CM slot has not been finalised. While selecting the federal cabinet may be relatively easier, the large number of ‘electables’, independents and allies from smaller parties will claim their pound of flesh; thereby necessitating compromises that otherwise the good Khan may have avoided.

Imran takes charge of a moth-eaten country bitten by its elites and powerful special interests. Some of them — the pillars of Purana Pakistan – are within the party fold and have enabled his rise to power

Secondly, managing a coalition is never that smooth. Both at the Centre and in the Punjab, Imran Khan will have to steer the coalition including difficult bedfellows such as the MQM. The two have been rivals in the political arena for way too long and PTI has captured some of the traditional space occupied by the latter. Will the MQM allow PTI to consolidate its gains or scuttle it for the next electoral round? Needless to say, coalitions are difficult everywhere but more so when the ruling party has been self-righteous and its followers perceive all opposition parties to be ‘corrupt’ and compromised.

Thirdly, the strong opposition in the National Assembly, Senate and the Punjab Assembly will make legislative business difficult. Assuming that many of the ‘reforms’ that PTI intends to undertake may not require new laws, the changes will be strongly contested. This is why more than the role of firebrand party head, Imran Khan will have to act a national figure; and this would entail making compromises with the opposition including some of the characters that he has been lambasting throughout his political career, such as the PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari and the PMLN’s Shehbaz Sharif. A Senate strongly in the hands of the opposition parties will pose another challenge to the business of governance.

Handling the economic crisis is the fourth immediate challenge to the incoming government. Much has been said about the limited options that rest before it; and the inevitability of seeking a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF); where such assistance comes not without conditions. Foremost among these usually involves the curtailing of curtail public expenditure. While the country will pass through this difficult time, the ‘adjustment’ will not be without ramifications. The accumulated losses of all public sector enterprises exceed Rs1.2 trillion (4 percent of GDP), and circular debt crossed the 573billion mark in June, 2018. How will the Medina-style welfare state emerge from this morass?

The US has already signalled its opposition to any IMF bailout. This is where economic compulsions intersect with foreign policy choices. Washington wields considerable influence over the IMF and other international finance institutions such as the World Bank. Security assistance to Pakistan is declining further as places for Pakistani military officials in the US government’s International Military Education and Training program (IMET) have been closed off. The size of this assistance is small but the symbolism is heavy. For it represents a turning point in the military-to-military relationship. In part, this is linked to Afghanistan but it is also a sign of shifting alliances in the region. Will Imran Khan take the lead on resolving the issues with Kabul and by extension the US? The new set-up will be sucked into a complex regional vortex. It remains to be seen how the PTI government will handle this tightrope walk especially when the national security framework has already been defined and is de facto led by the military.

But all these challenges pale into comparison before the Tsunami of expectations held by the millions who voted for the party. For years Khan and his right-hand men have been claiming overnight Tabdeeli (change). Thus managing the expectations held by the public, amplified by sections of a largely pro-PTI electronic media, will prove the real test of the upcoming administration.

Finally, there is the not-so-insignificant issue of legitimacy. The opposition parties have been crying hoarse over the alleged manipulation before the elections and on the polling day. They will join the parliament under protest. But there are actors outside the parliament. For instance, Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazal (JUIF) leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman is angry and he has been attacking Imran Khan and his alleged ‘patrons’ in the establishment. The Barelvi leader Khadim Rizvi has also been complaining of ‘rigging’. Admittedly, this is nothing new but there is a dark side to the current protests. The mainstream media censored the anti-establishment slogans but the prospect of street protests present a conundrum for Imran Khan as well as the powers-that-be. Even before he has taken oath as PM, display of street power and inflammatory rhetoric makes the transition far from smooth.

Imran Khan has an incorruptible image; he is trusted and inspires hope for change in large sections of the electorate. That is undisputable. But he takes charge of a moth-eaten country bitten by its elites and powerful special interests. Some of them — the pillars of Purana Pakistan — are in his party fold and have enabled his rise to power.

One can only wish him luck given the intractability of an unenviable circumstance.