Political and economic dynamics in Pakistan and Sri Lanka

Published : 19 Apr 2022 09:10 PM | Updated : 19 Apr 2022 09:10 PM

It may be noted that no Pakistan Prime Minister has ever comp­leted a five-year term in office during that country’s nearly 75-year history. Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician, was removed from Office through high political drama in the early hours of 10 April after 174 MPs voted against him in the Pakistan Parliament which consists of 342-members.

However, it may be noted that Shehbaz Sharif, leader of the centrist Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), was the only candidate for Premier after Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the former Foreign Minister with Imran Khan within the Tehreek-e-Insaf Party, withdrew his candidacy and resigned his seat.

Sharif, who was sworn in later on 11 April, comes from a family of industrialists which has become a political dynasty. The 70-year-old was elected to the National Assembly in 2018 and headed the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party after his elder brother was barred from holding public office for life after being found guilty of corruption. Sharif obtained 174 votes and will now form a new government that can remain in place until August 2023, when general elections are due.

Shehbaz Sharif, 70, served as Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, prior to Imran Khan coming to power in 2018. Mr Sharif, who leads the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), has a reputation for efficiency and being hard working, and is credited with making significant infrastructure improvements. Shehbaz Sharif has always been in the shadow of his older brother, Nawaz Sharif, who served as PM on three occasions.

However, unlike Nawaz Sharif who openly criticised the army following his removal from power, Shehbaz has in the recent past favored reconciliation with the "establishment". Political analysts have observed that Mr Khan's opponents saw an opportunity to strike after months of discontent over his management of the economy, and a breakdown in his relations with Pakistan's powerful military. Mr Sharif banded together with other opposition lawmakers to muster the numbers to vote Mr Khan out.

It may be recalled that when Imran Khan was elected Prime Minister in 2018, he seemed to have almost everything in his favour. A national hero from his cricketing days, he had transformed into a charismatic politician and, after years of struggle, managed to supplant the two rival established political dynasties that had dominated Pakistan for decades. He emerged as a fresh force, with vibrant rallies full of catchy songs which, along with his huge social media presence, amplified his staunch anti-corruption message. Mr Khan promised to bring "change" to the country, creating a "new Pakistan". No Prime Minister had ever completed a full five-year parliamentary tenure in Pakistan, and Imran Khan looked as though he could be the first.

Interestingly, the reason his position appeared so secure, however, also helps now to explain his downfall. Both sides deny it, but it is generally acknowledged he came to power with the help of a hybrid regime-Pakistan's powerful army and intelligence services, also referred to as “the establishment”.  During the 2018 election campaign, media outlets reported sympathetically on how his opponents had their distribution curtailed, while some candidates standing for election were either cajoled or coerced into joining his party. The results worried civil society activists, because of the spate of attacks and abductions targeting journalists and commentators critical of both Mr Khan's government and the intelligence services. They both denied involvement, but no other culprit was ever identified.

The dynamic changed dramatically last year. A number of observers told the BBC that the army began to grow increasingly frustrated with Mr Khan's failure to deliver good governance, particularly in Punjab, and perhaps at how they were being publicly blamed for bringing him into power by the opposition. Most crucially, a rift began to appear between Gen Bajwa and Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who was widely seen as hoping to become the next army chief. Lt Gen Hameed was apparently so confident of his prospects that he had even previously told officials in neighboring Afghanistan he would be the next man in charge of the army. However, one source close to the military said that while Lt Gen Hameed was seen as someone who could handle "dirty jobs" effectively, a reference to manipulating politicians or silencing critics, he was not seen as someone fit "to lead the institution".

Further differences also emerged between Imran Khan and the army too- notably on foreign policy. Although he defended visiting Moscow on the day Russian troops crossed into Ukraine and brusquely rejected attempts by Western officials to issue a condemnation of President Vladimir Putin's behavior. On the other hand, Gen Bajwa has observed that the invasion "must be stopped immediately"- something that must have scored points with the USA.

Now Imran is out because he had fallen out with the Pakistani Army leadership.

There are many challenges facing Pakistan at this point of time. The cost of living in Pakistan has been rocketing up, with sharp rises in food prices and their Rupee falling against the US Dollar.

In his first address as Prime Minister in the Pakistan National Assembly, Sharif has announced an increase in salaries, pensions and the minimum wage for laborers. Sharif also discussed the foreign-policy failures of the outgoing government and said that he would expedite the multibillion-dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project and rebuild broken ties with partners and allies. He also remarked that- “We want good relations with India but there cannot be sustainable peace unless the issue of Kashmir is resolved.”  Sharif has also invited his Indian counterpart to help solve the Kashmir dispute in line with United Nations Resolutions.

The new Prime Minister also did not miss the opportunity to deal with the allegations leveled by Khan that the United States had conspired with his opponents to topple his government. Sharif, in response, has ordered an in-camera briefing of the parliamentary committee on national security. Senior civil and military officials, including Pakistan’s foreign Ambassador in Washington, will also attend this meeting. He has also observed that he would step down and if there was an iota of evidence against him.

Analysts have observed that the new government constituted from an unlikely alliance will face the same issues which bedeviled the cricket star-turned-politician- a weak economy, rising militancy, and soured relations with the West.

Nevertheless, there has been a good beginning.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already congratulated the new Pakistan Prime Minister after the latter was sworn in and remarked that India desired peace and stability in a region free of terrorism.

In addition, the Pakistani Dawn newspaper has reported that by 11 April the Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX) benchmark KSE-100 index had soared more than 1,500 points, with analysts attributing the rally to a potential end to weeks of political instability. The index opened at 44,444.58 and was up by 1541.57 points, or 3.47 percent by the end of the day. Financial analyst Tahir Abbas has consequently remarked that “the market has responded positively to political stability”.

Shehbaz Sharif has immediately also announced a raft of populist measures, including a new minimum wage of 25,000 Rupees (around US Dollar135), pay rises for civil servants, and development projects in rural areas.

Nevertheless, while some legal experts have called Imran Khan’s removal a victory for the Constitution and democracy in Pakistan- whether the new government will bring stability is still an open question. There are still the issues related to SAARC, SAFTA, China, India and also Afghanistan.

The evolving situation in Sri Lanka has also drawn the attention of countries not only in South Asia and other countries in Asia and Europe but also financial institutions in Europe and North America. The island nation is grappling with its worst economic downturn since independence, with regular blackouts and acute shortages of food and fuel. Meanwhile, doctors in Sri Lanka have also warned that a catastrophic number of people could die as the crisis-hit country’s healthcare system teeters on the edge of collapse amid crippling power cuts and shortages of life-saving medications.

Crisis-stricken Sri Lanka defaulted on its US Dollar 51 billion external debt on 12 April, calling the move a "last resort" after running out of foreign exchange to import desperately needed goods. Sri Lanka's finance ministry has said in a statement that creditors, including foreign governments, were free to capitalize any interest payments due to them or opt for payback in Sri Lankan rupees.

The emergency has caused widespread misery for Sri Lanka's 22 million people and led to weeks of anti-government protests. Facing an economic crisis and dragged down by debt, the island nation of 22 million people is running short of power, fuel, food and medicines due to a lack of foreign exchange for imports. It has reached out to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and countries such as India and China for urgent financial help, but both countries instead of debt relief have offered more credit lines to buy commodities from them.

President Rajapaksa dissolved his cabinet last week and called for a unity government to help tackle the crisis. However, 41 lawmakers have walked out of the ruling coalition to become independents in the 225-seat parliament. The government has however claimed that it retains a majority in the house.

It appears that at the present moment there is an effort to have an all-party committee to make key decisions and also arrange the appointment of a new Prime Minister and a limited Cabinet. It is felt that such a measure might help to create a stable government capable of implementing clear policies required for undertaking discussion with the IMF and other world financial institutions.

It needs to be remembered that Sri Lanka’s next parliamentary election is not due until 2025.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance