By Abhishek Das
After weeks of high political drama, Imran Khan was ousted through a No-Confidence Motion (NCM) in the National Assembly of Pakistan. He followed suit of all the previous Pakistani PMs whose term ended prematurely and became the first-ever Pakistani Prime Minister to be ousted in such a manner. With him now gone, Combined Opposition Leader, Shehbaz Sharif, of Pakistan Muslim League (N) was selected, and he took oath as the next Prime Minister. This brief would explore those challenges that Shehbaz Sharif needs to address immediately
The first and primary challenge, but seldom in concern is the economy of Pakistan. This will capture the media’s attention only when it further secures a loan from individual countries such as China or Saudia Arabia or from other financial institutions. Matters increasingly become worse as Pakistan is in the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) Grey List since June 2018. With a sliding growth rate, drying foreign reserves and growing dependency on loan have brought Pakistan to the brink of financial bankruptcy. The only silver lining is that Pakistan’s main creditor China, through its state media, has already hailed Shehbaz Sharif and vouched for their support towards Pakistan, stating that is not dependent on any particular person. However, Chinese loans are not very encouraging, especially after its impact on the Sri Lankan economy which now stands bankrupted. Sooner the action taken, the better for Pakistan and Shehbaz Sharif’s regime as the drowning economy needs urgent attention.
The second challenge is the multi-party coalition that has allowed Shehbaz to become the Prime Minister. This coalition that Shehbaz Sharif wishes to lead is built on two core issues: Their dejection for military interference in civil politics and Imran Khan—the embodiment of military interference in politics. With Imran Khan gone, Shehbaz Sharif needs to keep his alliance intact with a sound cohesion between political parties, their rivalries and their expectations. He faces two critical challenges in achieving this. First is Imran Khan, who has already labeled the coalition as America’s puppets and is waiting for a slip up by the Sharif administration.
The second issue is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s presence inside the coalition as his political aspirations remain largely hidden. The presence of Bilawal Bhutto continues to be a thorn on Shehbaz Sharif’s side. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was 19 years old when his mother was killed in an assassination plot. Bilawal blamed it on the nexus between jihadi tanjeems and the military establishment even when the investigation of Benazir Bhutto’s murder was entrusted to the United Nations. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari now 33 years old is poised to be the Foreign Minister of Pakistan. Understandably, he is now more mature than when his mother was assassinated. Furthermore; military under General Bajwa proved themselves more impartial than what it was in 2007 under General Musharraf. But if Bilawal still believes regarding the role of military in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination then unfortunately Shehbaz Sharif is inheriting a big conflict that simmers below the surface.
Third, securing the trust of the Pakistani military remains a priority for the new PM. Very few believe that Imran Khan was not planted as the Prime Minister by the Pakistani military. However, it is not clear how Imran lost the military’s trust or how the military suddenly become impartial. Whatever may be the reason, both the ruling coalition as well as the generals in Rawalpindi need to recalibrate and reassess their position to reach an amicable decision so that a stable civil government can operate for the betterment of the people. At the helm of the ruling coalition, it is the task of the new PM to secure the faith of the Pakistani military.
It is also important to note how the foreign policy of Pakistan has changed significantly during Imran Khan’s regime. Imran’s lecture on Islamophobia in western countries; his open criticism of the French President on latter’s action on radical Islamists; his open denunciation of the Indian Prime Minister; his selective amnesia of the Uyghur Muslims suffering in Chinese Gulags; his tilt towards Turkish President Erdogan’s jingoism, his choice to drift away from Pakistan’s traditional allies like the Saudis and Emiratis; his open support for the Taliban breaking the shackles of American slavery; and lastly, the American conspiracy theory, all these have made matters worse for Shehbaz Sharif. Unless a course correction is made and a balance is achieved between Pakistan’s national interest and populism, Pakistan will continue to face difficulty in pressing for its own interest.
Another challenge that looms large is Afghanistan. The generals in Rawalpindi were successful in ending the war in Afghanistan and victorious in reinstating the Taliban. But Imran Khan and his government failed to garner much support, be it diplomatic or economic, for the Taliban regime. It even failed to release the Afghan government fund under the US government for the Taliban. Moreover, clashes over the Durand Line have become a regular matter between the Pakistani military and the Taliban, turning worse with each passing day. Shehbaz Sharif realised that with empty coffers, he cannot be of any help to the Taliban regime. In fact, equipped with a more capable economy, India is winning hearts of people in Afghanistan through their aid programmes. So it is a daunting task for Shehbaz Sharif to put in more effort to bring the Taliban into global mainstream because the military will not allow their pet project to fail due to “political incompetency”.
As usual, Kashmir is a longstanding issue for Pakistan. More so after India abrogated Article 370, ending the special status that was conferred to Jammu and Kashmir, making it an Indian Union territory, and clearing its stance that any dialogue on Kashmir will only consist of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. PM Modi had reiterated this stance in his congratulatory tweet to Shehbaz Sharif. It is worth witnessing how he wishes to bring India to the negotiation table. This is predominantly because the policy of war and terror both failed as far as Pakistani’s Kashmir policy is concerned. Moreover, he would need the support of the military to make a move on Kashmir.
Shehbaz Sharif is an experienced politician who knows his rivals and comrades in and out. He knows the military and their mechanism to control the civil polity all too well. It would be worth watching how this 70-year-old politician deals with such complex issues in the coming days.