This article was published in Arab News on April 13, 2022 and is available at the following link
The unprecedented has happened. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, a sitting Prime Minister has been sent home 15 months ahead of the scheduled completion of his term through the constitutional and parliamentary device of the vote of no-confidence passed by a majority of the very National Assembly which had elected him some 45 months ago.After the departure of Khan and his government, Shehbaz Sharif has been elected the new Prime Minister at the head of a coalition of around 13 political parties of diverse and, in some cases, conflicting agendas.
The new government is likely to face numerous challenges in the days to come. The first and foremost challenge is about managing the large unwieldy coalition. The first test of the coalition will be the formation of a coalition government and making key appointments in the civil service after securing consensus within the coalition. Although Sharif was the consensus candidate of the coalition for Prime Minister, achieving a similar consensus on the allocation of cabinet portfolios to satisfy more than a dozen political parties and quite a few influential independent politicians may not be as simple.
The coalition partners subscribe to different ideologies. The two largest political parties within the coalition – PMLN and PPP – are traditional rivals who, despite signing a charter of democracy in 2006, fought several pitched battles until recently, both in the political arena and in the courts. It was just a year ago when PPP was expelled from the 10-member Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) after PMLN and JUIF levelled serious charges against the PPP leadership.
Managing such a coalition government will require the acumen of walking on a tight rope. Since the united opposition which toppled Khan’s government is not an election alliance and at least PMLN and PPP have to contest the next general election against each other, posturing for the next election may commence soon.
The economy of Pakistan is facing serious challenges and the instability of the last two months has played havoc with some key economic indicators. People are facing hardships due to rising inflation and the new government has to provide urgent relief. Managing the economy including putting the IMF program back on track will constitute one of the greatest challenges for the new government.
Khan has already launched his protest campaign against the incoming government with a bang. He was able to mobilise large charged crowds along the length and breadth of Pakistan to protest against his ouster. His narrative of an American conspiracy behind the no-confidence motion seems to be gaining currency among the Pakistani public. He also appears to have successfully painted himself as the lone savior of national honour and sovereignty and his opponents as traitors who colluded with foreign powers to compromise national honour. Khan is an effective campaigner and communicator and the new government will have the urgent task to counter the charge sheet drawn-up by him.
Since leaders of many parties in the coalition are facing multiple corruption cases which these parties consider as acts of political victimization by the previous PTI government, amending the National Accountability law and replacing the top management of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) will also be among the urgent things-to-do list of the new government. Mobilizing support for these actions within parliament may not be difficult but tampering with accountability systems may be unfavourably viewed by the general public especially becauseKhan had run a very effective campaign against the alleged corruption of PMLN, PPP and JUIF’s leadership and as a result, a sizeable population believes these charges. Introducing accountability reforms without appearing to be favouring the coalition leadership will also be a huge test of the government’s legal and communication teams.
Making a smooth transition to the next general election including introducing electoral reforms, choosing the right time for the election and convincing provincial chief ministers to dissolve their respective provincial assemblies at the same time as the National Assembly, in case the incoming coalition government decides to go for early election, will be another herculean task. Resignation by PTI legislators has further complicated the situation and generated additional pressure for the new government.
These are just some of the key challenges to be faced by the incoming government. Maintaining a working relationship with the PTI provincial government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, a stress-free relationship with the armed forces and addressing some of the sore points in our foreign relations may also need to be addressed on an urgent basis.
Shehbaz Sharif’s first address to the National Assembly as Prime Minister was impressive but it remains to be seen how skilfully he can traverse the bumpy road of governance in the next 15 months.