Imran still a force to reckon with in Pakistan politics

No matter what the new government does it will open itself to vicious attacks

By Shahab Jafry

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Published: Tue 10 May 2022, 11:08 PM

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif must have realised by now that Imran Khan poisoned the chalice in the dying days of his administration. And now, no matter what the new government does it will open itself to vicious attacks from the previous one which is very bitter, highly charged, agitating on the streets and calling for a snap election.

To avoid an outright economic collapse, perhaps even a tumble into default, he must revive the bailout program with the IMF (International Monetary Fund). But that’s not going to happen till he first removes all the subsidies that are holding petrol prices from exploding into yet another round of hyperinflation and everything that comes with it. And there, precisely, lies the rub.

Imran suddenly cut prices by Rs10 per liter, less than a fortnight after caving into the Fund’s demands and raising them by Rs12 per liter, about a couple of months ago when the no-confidence motion against him became a certainty. And since that people-friendly gambit was bound to run foul of the IMF, and the $6 billion EFF (Extended Fund Facility) was sure to be suspended (once again), some wondered if Imran had read the writing on the wall and thrown a monkey wrench into the whole thing because he knew he wouldn’t be around to present the next budget. And whoever will, will then have a very serious problem on their hands.

So far Shahbaz has not raised fuel prices despite the obvious, desperate need to do so. But now push has come to shove, and he no longer has the luxury of time to play to the gallery. Capital markets tanked very badly when word got out that even steadfast friends and usual lenders of last resort – some Gulf countries and China – gently advised the government to settle matters with the Fund before committing any more loans or deferred oil payments. Meanwhile, the currency is in blind freefall, the trade deficit is expected to hit $50 billion by the end of the fiscal in a little under two months, and there’s barely enough reserves for a few weeks of imports. Let’s not forget that some awkward debt and interest payments are coming up as well.

Keeping the subsidy even a minute longer, with nothing coming in and a lot going out, would devastate the current account and bleed a lot more tax money out of the people in the long run. Yet removing it, and watching prices tear through the roof, would be far more unpopular in the immediate term. Because that’s exactly what the 11 parties that form the present government used to attack Imran Khan’s government till early April. But now the shoe is on the other foot and the spikes in Brent crude are bad news for Shehbaz, and something of a blessing for Imran.

That’s why Imran, and his large crowds on the streets with their knives out, are now itching to slice the government once it does what it will simply have to do. He’s already started taunting the media for not taking their cameras and microphones to angry customers in long lines at utility stores, like they did towards the end of his time. This will give him more bullets to load into his gun as he prepares to gather millions of people to march on Islamabad and demand an immediate election. He wants the chalice back.

That would be a fine strategy if only his tantrums were limited to the government. But in his rage, he’s also attacked the military and judiciary and his legions have lit up social media with savage insults against state institutions. He’s also poisoned mainstream political and social discourse to a new level of toxicity by sharply dividing society between people that stand with PTI (Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf) and traitors to the state and religion. And he’s also overstepped legal and constitutional red lines on a number of occasions.

All this is bound to have some sort of blowback. Sooner or later an election will have to be called. But if by then Pakistan’s financial paralysis is compounded by a political-cum-legal civil war that pits parts of society against central institutions of the state, and there’s no money in the bank to pay back loans, and nobody comes to bail us out, and civil/institutional strife breaks out into pure anarchy, then what would anybody who wins the election really hope to drink from the chalice? And what would he spare for the people?

The writer is a senior journalist based in Lahore.

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