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Two Years On, Pakistan’s Civilian Government Struggling To Find Its Feet


Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan

As Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government completes its first two years in office this week, he and his cabinet members appeared to send out a coordinated message: The country’s rough patch is over.

“Remember that no country in the world has made progress without struggle,” Khan told a private Pakistani news channel. “When your expenses surpass your income, you cannot expect to fix Pakistan by pressing a [magic] button,” he added.

“We hope to have surmounted difficulties as a new era of prosperity is imminent,” Information Minister Shibli Faraz told journalists on August 19. “We will soon see the fruits for persevering through this difficult patch.”

Asad Umar, a senior leader of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) and minister for planning and development, boasted that their administration has stabilized the economy after inheriting the worst crises. “[We] managed the biggest global threat, covid, threat by successfully balancing lives and livelihoods,” he tweeted.

But opposition politicians and independent observers are deeply skeptical about the prospects of ‘naya’ or the “new Pakistan” the PTI promised by delivering improved governance and cleaning up deep-seated graft.

While opposition politicians declared Khan’s administration an “unmitigated disaster,” nonpartisan experts pointed to deeper problems that the country of 220 million people have struggled with for decades. They see Khan’s government as a “hybrid” civil-military regime, in which the powerful generals seem to be calling all the shots.

Opposition politicians and independent observers have repeatedly blamed the military for facilitating Khan’s ascent to power by rigging the July 2018 parliamentary election in his favor and hounding his political rivals in corruption cases. The PTI denies being helped by the military while last year a military spokesman denied interfering in politics.

Zahid Hussain, a journalist and author, says that nearly halfway through its five-year term, the PTI is unlikely to deliver a new Pakistan. He says the establishment – a euphemism for the military – now has high stakes in seeing that its “project” of crafting the current government does not fail.

“Pakistan’s experiment with hybrid rule doesn’t seem to be succeeding,” he wrote in a recent op-ed in Dawn, the country’s leading English-language daily. “The PTI government may survive in power, but the real issue is what kind of political legacy it is creating.”

With a noticeable increase in remittances and the return of normal economic activity after a major coronavirus outbreak, there might be some signs of an economic upturn. But the country’s poor have been hard pressed by runaway inflation, a depreciating economy, and mass unemployment. Rising poverty and mounting debts are expected to feature prominently as Islamabad’s economic headaches.

While the Pakistani political system still functions as a parliamentary democracy, rights watchdogs frequently criticize the country for grave abuses, diminishing freedoms, blanket censorships, and crackdowns.

A yearslong antigraft campaign that has seen most opposition leaders arrested and humiliated has actually delivered few convictions. The exile and silence of senior opposition leaders for months have not helped Khan’s administration in delivering promised and much hyped reforms.

Najam Sethi, a leading journalist, says that even senior establishment figures no longer believe their own claims that Pakistan is moving in the right direction.

“But they can hardly admit that because that would push them logically to rectify the situation by getting rid of Imran Khan and the PTI and find a suitable formula for the way ahead,” he wrote recently. “That moment of awakening hasn’t arrived. But it is inevitable. There is a limit to everything.”

Given Pakistan’s checkered history of few politicians daring to stand up to the powerful generals, Islamabad is likely to muddle through crises rather than reaching a tipping point because of popular anger with circumstances.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. 

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