Shahbaz Sharif’s Crown of Thorns: Can he deliver?
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif known as an able administrator as Chief Minister in Punjab three times, is wearing a crown of thorns as a first time PM, a post that he is known to have aspired for in the past. All eyes are on the younger Sharif if he will deliver, but first a brief background.
PTI’s Trumpian Resistance
After much resistance Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) Government led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad was ousted by a legitimate constitutional move of a no confidence motion, which though not the first time for the country is also seen as a change from the most recent instances where a prime minister has been replaced mainly through pressure by the Army.
While confrontational polity of the PTI is continuing. Mr Khan is mobilizing public support and has launched streetside agitations. The PTI appears to be pitching for early elections where the legislators have threatened to resign enmasse.
The PTI is also resisting smooth take over by Mr Shahbaz Sharif who was duly elected as the Prime Minister adopting what some critics have claimed is an approach similar to former US President Donald Trump who refused to admit defeat despite overwhelming evidence against the same after losing to the present incumbent Joe Biden.
Pakistan’s President Dr Arif Alvi did not administer the oath of office to Mr Sharif as well as to his ministers, while Shahbaz has reached out to him in the hope of a reconciliation visiting him on April 20th.
Sharif Hits the Ground Running
While the transition to the new administration is ongoing, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has hit the ground running so to say visiting multiple projects and giving orders for rejuvenation of the administration after the lax performance of Imran Khan government which had failed on multiple fronts including governance.
Thus, Sharif directed the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) and Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) to complete the Daimer Bhasha Dam project by 2026, ahead of its timeline of 2029. Meanwhile his work ethics has also shaken up the government servants who have been shaken out of their slumber.
Importantly with Shahbaz Sharif taking office as the Prime Minister some order has been restored in terms management of governance as well as polity.
While Imran Khan government was mainly concerned in piling up corruption cases against the opposition the new administration is focused on improvement of the economy which remains a very challenging task given the depths to which it has fallen and with very stringent conditions by the International Monetary Fund which is expected to raise public anger due to rising inflation. Thus the government of Shahbaz has a tough call to make on the way ahead.
“The coalition government stands a chance in the next election only if it succeeds in providing instant relief to the public, quelling uncertainty, boosting investment and charting out a viable, painless path of sustainable development,” an expert commented as quoted by the Dawn.
Thus, for Shahbaz Sharif the first time Prime Minister and three time Chief Minister of Punjab heading a coalition government with the country in deep economic crisis could be a crown of thorns.
Apart from the political challenges that are likely to be faced from the former ruling party PTI and its leader and former Prime Minister Imran Khan, Sharif will have to face the brunt of the public anger as to manage the IMF conditions increase in the price of fuel is inevitable which will have a spiraling impact on inflation, food prices and thus hit the public hard.
He also has a number of strengths to support him in the chair.
Thus a review of the challenges and strengths may be in order as indicated below
Economy - Weakness
Managing the economy and Pakistan’s large public debt without affecting man on the street will be Shahbaz Sharif’s biggest challenge. The situation is of concern with food inflation in Pakistan at 15 per cent in March, rising unemployment, and lack of salary growth salaries. The trade and fiscal deficit are at $ 35 billion in the first nine months of the current FY July-June and 6 percent of the GDP respectively. Forex reserves at $ 11 billion can only cover 6 percent of the GDP.
To top the woes, International Monetary Fund (IMF) has delayed $1bn tranche and the bridging loan from China of $2.5bn for debt repayment is yet to come by.
Nevertheless, there is hope as the new Finance Minister Miftah Ismail is an old IMF hand and his first trip is to New York to revive the programme. Ismail is a PMLN loyalist and an economist with wide experience. He plans to curtail spending on the public sector development programme.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Shahbaz is consulting a wide range of economist and business leaders. For Sharif managing the economy will be the acid test which will determine whether his party returns to power in the next elections in Pakistan due in another 15 months in July next year.
Managing the Coalition - Challenge
Shahbaz has also to manage a coalition of parties with varied interests. Some coalition partners as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) were unwilling to join the government as elections are just about a year plus away and the anti-incumbency factor due to public ire on the economic front may be strong.
The PPP has also raised concerns over appointment of Tariq Fatemi as the advisor of Foreign Affairs leading Shahbaz to withdraw the same. Now PPP may possibly want Bilwal Zardari Bhutto to be appointed as a full time Foreign Minister.
On the other hand the security situation in the tribal areas and Balochistan continues to worsen which can be a point of conflict with coalition partner as the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) boycotted the National Assembly proceedings over alleged firing by security forces on protesters in Chagai and stated openly that they will not be able to continue to support the government if high security operations in Balochistan continue. While this may be to appease the local support base, a rocky relationship is expected.
Shahbaz has been quick in mustering support as his cabinet is a mix of the coalition parties and is in communication with the main constituents over a period. "And I have no doubt that despite your political affiliation and struggle, this coalition will work for the people of Pakistan without any personal biases," he remarked in the first cabinet meeting as per the Dawn.
Support of the Pakistan Army - Strength
On the positive side, Shahbaz Sharif has support of the Army.
In fact of the two Sharif brothers, Nawaz and Shahbaz, the Army has always had a positive relationship with the younger sibling who is seen as a realist recognizing the important role played by the military in Pakistan politics in general.
Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa on April 19th met newly-elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif at the latter's official residence in Islamabad. The meeting was held in a cordial manner with the two interacting across the table rather than the casual approach by the former Prime Minister Imran Khan who met the Army Chief in the lawns of his house.
There was much speculation of General Qamar Javed Bajwa who is on a three years extension seeking another one or at least a year more with political instability in the country.
But the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Major General Babar Iftikhar set to rest the conjecture and confirmed that General Bajwa is neither seeking the extension of his tenure nor will he accept it.
This will be a positive development for a long tenure of the Army Chief enables him to manipulate political classes in a manner that has been detrimental to stability of the country.
Importantly Shahbaz Sharif will be the one who will select the next Army Chief as Bajwa retires in November this year.
International and Regional Relations - Strength
On the international and regional front also there is hope.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on April 20th appointed Syed Tariq Fatemi, a close aide of PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif, as his special assistant on foreign affairs but had to withdraw the nomination due to objections by the PPP.
Hina Rabbani Khar of the PPP will be the Minister of State who has been a former foreign minister of Pakistan and will be the women face of the government abroad and Bilawal may be appointed to the post of a full time foreign minister shortly.
On the other hand Shahbaz Sharif’s assumption to office has been welcomed by regional as well as international stakeholders.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was amongst the first to congratulate Sharif. Chinese Prime Minister Le Keqiang followed. US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has also welcomed the new prime minister. Importantly, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman congratulated the new Prime Minister of Pakistan Shahbaz Sharif and wished him success in a telephone call.
Amongst the first actions by the Shahbaz Sharif government is the repealing of the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) which was seen as a draconian measure to control and contain the growth of the media in many dimensions. This will be welcomed by the West.
The new premier Shahbaz Sharif has rejected the US conspiracy theory of removal of Imran Khan and underscored that Pakistan valued its long-standing relationship with the United States and wanted to further deepen bilateral cooperation based on mutual respect, trust, and equality.
The visit of a Muslim US congresswomen Ilhan Omar has provided an opportunity to Pakistan to remove the stigma that was created by former Prime Minister Imran Khan of the US hatching a conspiracy to remove him.
For Pakistan from the economy point of view relations with India, China, Saudi Arabia and UAE apart from the US and west are important and Sharif is pursuing the same.
On the other hand relations with the Afghan Taliban De Facto authority will prove to be a major challenge.
PTI and Punjab – A Challenge
The challenges that the ousted PTI and its chair Imran Khan is posing to the new PML N government has been highlighted in the preceding section.
There is expected to be trouble in the home province in Punjab for Shahbaz as though PML-N's Hamza Shehbaz, son of the Prime Minister has been elected the new chief minister the other main parties in the province party PML-Q and ally PTI boycotted the elections. He has yet to be administered the oath of office as the PTI is resisting the same with a Governor who owes allegiance to former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Sharif Family Politics?
Meanwhile there could be some tensions in the Sharif family as well with the junior Father Son duo are in office while the Nawaz and daughter Maryam remain out of the government. In case there is a rift this will impact the PML N.
It is well known that while Shahbaz is the administrator, Nawaz and Maryam are the crowd pullers.
There are other issues which may have repercussions for the Sharif Government such as the state of play of the judiciary with an important ruling on Article 63-A – status of political party members who vote against the whip of the Party.
Security is another challenge as a spike in militancy by the Pakistan Tehreek Taliban and Baloch groups who have sanctuaries now in Afghanistan with the Taliban government there turning a blind eye. But this will be largely required to be managed by the Army unless there are civilian killings in large numbers and allegations of a heavy hand by the military especially in Balochistan.
The success or otherwise of Mr Shahbaz Sharif will be determined by whether he survives till the next elections in Pakistan due next year or a predated one and then leads his party PML N to success in the polls – that would imply approval of the people of management of the thorny issues besieging his government.