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Economic Woes Fuel Protest Aiming To Topple Pakistani Gov’t

FILE: Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI), appears to have won the backing of most opposition parties for his “freedom march” protest.
FILE: Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI), appears to have won the backing of most opposition parties for his “freedom march” protest.

The worsening economic conditions in Pakistan are helping an Islamist political party to threaten the survival of the country’s civilian government.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI), appears to have won the backing of most opposition parties for his “freedom march” protest. Rehman says the protest will begin on October 27, when rallies from across the country will start their march toward Islamabad. Once in the capital, the procession is expected to turn into a sit-in in front of the parliament.

The JUI, a party led by Sunni clerics following the puritanical Deobandi school, has traditionally campaigned for a greater role for Islam in politics. But Rehman now appears to have sensed the popular pulse and has made the deteriorating economy a crux of his campaign against the administration of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s populist Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party.

"This government always tries to deflect people’s attention from its economic failures,” he told supporters recently. “But the agony caused by inflation and the end of manufacturing is not attracting them to the government’s claims of going ahead with an accountability drive [aimed at weeding out corruption].”

Rehman counts inflation as the number one issue in contemporary Pakistan. “The economy is sinking, factories are being shut, and traders are in distress,” he noted. “We have to save the country, save the economy of this country.”

Many Pakistanis stung by runaway inflation, rising unemployment, and increasing taxes find his assessment appealing. His apparent determination to stand up to the government has prompted most secular, Islamist, ethno-nationalist, and conservative opposition parties to back the JUI’s protest.

“Everyone is watching whether the strategy opposition parties are going to adapt or what [Maulana] Fazlur Rehman and other opposition leaders will do,” Islamabad-based journalist Talat Hussain noted. “The real issue, however, is the overall environment this protest is being carried out in. That environment is defined by one word: inflation. Only people can assess the turmoil inflation has created in their lives.”

A new report by the World Bank paints a grim picture for Pakistan’s economic outlook. The organization has cut Islamabad’s economic growth forecast for the next two years and projects that it will miss inflation, public debt, and fiscal deficit reduction targets.

“Headline inflation increased to 7.3 percent in FY19 compared with 3.9 percent in FY18, primarily because of a cumulative depreciation of 25.5 percent of the PKR [Pakistani Rupee] against the USD during the fiscal year,” the bank’s South Asia Economic Focus Fall 2019 report noted on October 13.

The World Bank has more bad news for Islamabad. “Inflation is expected to rise in FY20 to 13.0 percent, and afterwards start declining gradually. The increase in prices will be driven by the second-round impact of exchange-rate pass-through to domestic prices,” the report noted.

The organization said that Islamabad’s real GDP growth has declined from 5.5 percent last year to 3.3 now, which is set to deteriorate further. “Growth is projected to deteriorate further to 2.4 percent this fiscal year, as monetary policy remains tight, and the planned fiscal consolidation will compress domestic demand,” the bank said. “The program signed with the International Monetary Fund is expected to help growth recover from fiscal year 2021-22 onwards.”

Senior leaders of the ruling PTI, however, are urging Pakistanis to wait for the economy to improve.

“We know about the issue of inflation, but you need to be patient for a while,” Jahangir Tareen, a billionaire businessman and key confidant of PM Khan, told supporters on October 14.

“In six months to a year, you will see that the [economic] conditions will begin to change,” he said. “And then the Pakistani economy will undergo sustainable growth.”

While some traders are supporting Rehman’s march and have announced separate protests this month, others worry that political instability will only contribute to economic misery.

Zahid Shinwari, leader of a trader’s association in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says that like Khan’s four-month sit-in protest in 2014, Rehman’s planned agitation will shock the economy.

“It will damage our businesses and the overall economy. Our economy lost billions to Khan’s protest,” he told Radio Mashaal. “During the past 30 or 40 years, our economy has not been in so much trouble. Our trade and industry face major problems.”

According to the World Bank, Pakistan’s GDP stands at $314 billion for a population of 207 million people. The current per capita income in the country stands at $1,563. The organization expects limited poverty reduction in the country as it grapples with a macroeconomic adjustment program in which the IMF expects Islamabad to implement structural reforms to “boost competitiveness and achieve sustained growth.”