Pakistan’s new Sharif, old problems

Pakistan's opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif speaks during a press conference
Anjum Naveed/Associated Press

Former cricket star-turned politician Imran Khan, who was voted out by Pakistan’s parliament from the office of prime minister, is back doing what he does best: rabblerousing. Khan is blaming the United States for conspiring to oust him from office, while naming Pakistan’s judiciary and military as co-conspirators.

Khan’s incendiary rhetoric is threatening chaos in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation with 200 million people. The new government, headed by Shahbaz Sharif, three-time chief minister of Punjab province, now faces the difficult task of undoing the consequences of Khan’s bombast and incompetence.

Elected in 2018 as a “new broom sweeps clean” celebrity, Khan ended up dividing Pakistanis, mismanaging the economy and undermining Pakistan’s relationships abroad. Even in his last days, his claims of being victim of a foreign conspiracy have injected venom into the veins of an already troubled polity.

Many of Pakistan’s problems are endemic and predate Khan’s term in office. But like many populists, Khan paid little heed to policymaking and described himself as the solution to all problems. His followers saw him as a messiah opposing corrupt traditional politicians. But critics mocked the number of times he spoke about himself and used the words “I, me, mine,” in his longwinded speeches. In one recent 45-minute speech, the total number of first person references was more than 200.

Khan claimed he wanted Pakistan to regain its honor, which had been lost due to dependence of the West, especially the U.S. He lectured everyone about his mixture of Islamic mysticism, hyper-nationalism and “all the nation needs is an honest man like me leading it” ideology.

Describing the Taliban as people who had “broken the shackles of slavery,” Khan went out of his way to criticize the West, without regard for Pakistan’s external economic relations. The U.S. remains Pakistan’s largest export market, while Europe and the United Kingdom are significant investors and trading partners. Khan even managed to annoy Pakistan’s traditional friends and economic benefactors China, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

Pakistan has hoped for years to re-align its economy by expanding investments from and trade with China. But Khan failed to attract any new Chinese investment. China even expressed reservations about the competence of Khan’s economic managers in relation to ongoing infrastructure projects under the rubric of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

True to his bombastic form, Imran Khan showed up in Moscow to stand beside Vladimir Putin on the day Russian troops invaded Ukraine. The Russia trip made no foreign policy or economic sense and was undertaken against the advice of Pakistan’s military and foreign office. Pakistan’s trade with Russia is a meager $ 200 million, and Putin was no longer in a position to deliver on promises of future oil supplies, investment or trade.

Under Khan, Pakistan’s economy dived into a tailspin, with per-capita GDP declining for the first time in years. Inflation reached double digits. The rupee plunged in value. The stock market never recovered to pre-2017 levels. Khan’s own finance minister, Shaukat Tarin, has now admitted that their government had no economic plan.

The economic mismanagement and poking of Pakistan’s foreign friends in the eye annoyed Pakistan’s all-powerful military, which had helped Khan’s rise as a way of getting rid of traditional politicians who tended to challenge the military’s dominance. Once Khan attempted to interfere with the appointment of the army’s next commander, the military withdrew political support. That, in turn, led to smaller parties in parliament switching support from Khan’s coalition to the opposition.

Instead of resigning after losing a majority in parliament, as is the general practice for prime ministers in parliamentary democracies, Khan tried to block the vote of no confidence against him by claiming that it was part of a conspiracy instigated by the United States. Pakistan’s supreme court ruled against Khan and forced the vote to go through. Khan was ousted from office but is now orchestrating protests.

Khan has a hardcore cult-like following that believes anyone who doesn’t agree with their leader is a traitor to Pakistan and Islam. Khan is also hoping that there are people in the military, especially in the middle ranks, who can be swayed by the sentiment that “Pakistan is under foreign attack” by other means.

The Pakistan military leadership has made it clear that it has seen no evidence of collusion between Khan’s opponents and any foreign power, let alone the United States. The army’s chief of staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has repeatedly indicated that better relations with the U.S. are in Pakistan’s interest. But Khan is unlikely to step back from his false claims and will probably continue to fire up his base, hoping to ride an anti-American wave to success in the next elections.

That makes the task of the new prime minister, who presides over a coalition of disparate parties, all the more difficult. Sharif brings experience in governance and a calm demeanor to the job, which has helped lift the Pakistan rupee and the stock market. But changing the direction of Pakistan – which is often seen internationally as unstable and perennially crisis prone – might not be that easy.

Husain Haqqani is director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute. He served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2011.

Tags Imran Khan Imran Khan Pakistan Pakistani politicians Pakistan–United States relations Shahbaz Sharif
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