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Pakistani Prime Minister Faces Turmoil

FILE: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan
FILE: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing growing chaos within his ruling political party amid pressure and criticism from the country’s powerful military and judiciary over his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Khan, a former cricket star, is going through a difficult patch in his 20-month-long stint in power as he deals with the fallout of a government inquiry report naming key allies in scandals related to profiteering from rising sugar and wheat prices amid chronic shortages last year.

On April 6, Khan reshuffled his cabinet, sacked advisers, and transferred several senior bureaucrats after a report by the Federal Investigation Agency revealed that some figures within his ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party had gained from a scandal locally dubbed the sugar crisis. “First, they were able to gain subsidy and, secondly, they made profit from the increasing sugar prices in the local market,” it noted.

Jahangir Tareen, an agricultural magnate and former secretary general of PTI, was the most prominent among the ruling party supporters appearing to lose his powerbroker clout in the aftermath of the report’s revelations. On April 6, Tareen quickly challenged the claims of a Khan aid who said he had been “removed” as chairman of a government agricultural task force. Many more of Tareen’s allies, including a key adviser to the prime minister, were reportedly sacked.

Yet Khan’s aides attempted to spin the move as part of his anticorruption campaign.

“Prime Minister Imran Khan is performing his responsibilities as the custodian of people’s trust,” Firdous Ashiq Awan, Khan’s media adviser, wrote on Twitter. “We will not tolerate anyone who poses a threat to people’s trust. You won’t see such an example of self-accountability in Pakistani history.”

Tareen, however, quickly dismissed the move as part of a conspiracy to undermine him. He blamed Azam Khan, a government bureaucrat currently serving as the prime minister's chief of staff, of orchestrating the “political report” to undermine his influence.

Azam Khan could not be immediately reached to respond to Tareen’s allegations. But many senior aides to the prime minister have rejected Tareen’s claims.

More tellingly, Tareen told Pakistan’s private Samaa television station that he orchestrated the PTI’s win in the 2018 election by attracting influential political families to the party after it bitterly lost the 2013 election.

“We have won 67 seats in [the eastern province] of Punjab in the most recent election,” he said, referring to the PTI’s performance in the July 2018 parliamentary election in Pakistan’s most populous province.

“Out of these, 80 percent come from influential political families,” he noted. “Consider that at least 60 percent of them joined the PTI after 2013 election and I wooed most of them to join the party.”

The PTI’s internal squabbling comes at a sensitive time for Khan’s administration as it appears to be under fire from the country’s judiciary and powerful military, which opposition politicians have often blamed for propelling Khan to power by undermining political rivals and rigging the 2018 election in his favor.

“The government is just calling in meetings whereas no work is being done on the ground,” Pakistan’s Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed noted while appraising Islamabad’s response to the coronavirus pandemic during court proceedings on April 6. “The nation should be taken into confidence during a national calamity.”

Last month, the country’s powerful military apparently sidestepped Khan to enforce a countrywide lockdown to stem the spread of a coronavirus outbreak.

“Pakistan currently does not have the capacity to provide the entire nation with food at home if a lockdown is imposed in the country,” Khan said in a televised address to the nation on March 22.

But the military leadership appeared to have a reached a different conclusion that same day.

“The threat we face is very different and the likes of which the world has not seen before,” military spokesman Babar Iftikhar told journalists on March 23 as he announced the army’s support for civilian authorities in shutting down the country of 220 million. “I want to request you to cooperate with the armed forces, law enforcement agencies, and the government.”

Khan, however, seems focused on turning turmoil within his political party into an opportunity.

“I await the detailed forensic reports now by the high-powered commission, which will come out on 25 April, before taking action,” he tweeted on April 5 while highlighting the possibility of more sackings or arrests after the government delivers its final report. “InshaAllah [God willing], after these reports come out no powerful lobby will be able to profiteer at the expense of our public.”

A public crusade against key powerbrokers that propelled Khan to power could deepen the current turmoil he faces.