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Cleansing Cloudy Sky Likely to Be Difficult for Pakistan

  • AKM Atiqur Rahman
  • 21st April, 2022 08:06:50 PM
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Mian Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif, on 11 April 2022, was elected as the 23rd Prime Minister of Pakistan, after a no-confidence motion against Imran Khan. Mr. Shehbaz is the President of Pakistan Muslim League (N), the party founded by his brother Newaz Sharif, who was also a premier of Pakistan. It is said that Imran Khan had to face this situation due to his failure in maintaining favourable equations with internal as well as external actors. Anyway, the new Prime Minister, if nothing happens otherwise, might continue till the next election to be held in October 2023.

It is expected that Shehbaz Sharif, who was three times Chief Minister of Punjab, would be able to handle the office of Prime Minister for a period of about one and a half years. But he took the office when Pakistan has a number of challenges to face, like repayment of overburdened foreign debt, soaring inflation, militancy in the country, Taliban (both in Pakistan and Afghanistan) issue, relations with neighbours and global alignment. In addition, he might face internal political turmoil and maintain a balance with military bureaucracy, which had never been a good experience for Pakistan’s political leaders.

The influence of Pakistan’s military in running the country is known to all. That’s why it remains an important factor in Pakistan’s politics and the political leaders of Pakistan must acknowledge that reality. If any imbalance in this issue happens, there must be a crisis. In this context, we can look back to see the characteristics of the history of Pakistan’s politics.

In 1973, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), with the support of Islamists, adopted a new constitution declaring Pakistan as an Islamic Republic and Islam as the state religion. In that year, a serious nationalist rebellion took place in Baluchistan province, which was harshly suppressed with the support of Iran. In 1974, Bhutto succumbed to increasing pressure from religious parties. Pakistan’s relations with the United States deteriorated once it normalised relations with the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, North Korea, China, and the Arab world. Its relations with India soured when it took aggressive measures against India at the United Nations. The PPP won in the 1977 general elections, which was challenged by the opposition. There were protests against Bhutto and public disorder, causing a bloodless coup. Ultimately Bhutto was executed in 1979.

During military rule from 1977 to 1988, General Zia-ul-Haq bolstered the influence of the Islamic clergy and the Islamic parties. Pakistan's relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated and Zia strove for strong relations with the United States to face Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Millions of Afghan refugees poured into Pakistan. Its North-West Frontier Province became a base for the anti-Soviet Afghan fighters, where thousands of young students from clerical schools were given arms training. Martial law was withdrawn in 1985; Muhammad Khan Junejo became the new Prime Minister. General Zia dismissed the Junejo government in May 1988 and called for elections in November 1988. However, General Zia died in a plane crash in August 1988.

The 1988 elections brought PPP leader Benazir Bhutto to power as the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan. Though she cemented pro-Western policies, but did not continue long. Her government was dismissed by the conservative President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Winning in the election of 1990, the Islamic Democratic Alliance, led by Newaz Sharif, formed the government. He had problems with President Khan, who had to leave the presidency. But after a few weeks, Sharif was also forced to relinquish office by the military leadership.

Benazir Bhutto came to power again in 1993. She maintained a balance with military bureaucracy. She emphasized a balanced foreign policy in maintaining relations with Iran, the United States, the European Union and the socialist states. Pakistan recognized the Taliban government of Afghanistan.  In 1996, Benazir Bhutto's government was dismissed by her own hand-picked President.

The 1997 election resulted in conservatives receiving a large majority and Newaz Sharif became the Prime Minister. On 12 October 1999, Prime Minister Sharif's attempt to dismiss General Pervez Musharraf failed. Sharif was arrested and given life sentence.  But the interference of US President Bill Clinton and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia spared Sharif's life and was exiled to Saudi Arabia.

The presidency of Musharraf held a referendum in 2002 for extension of his tenure. His chosen Shaukat Aziz became Prime Minister in 2004. There were several attempts of assassination of President Musharraf and Premier Aziz by Al-Qaeda. Even the government had to sign a truce with the Taliban in September 2006. Musharraf was sworn in for a second presidential term in November 2007. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on 27 December 2007 while departing from an election campaign. Yousaf Raza Gillani of the PPP became the Prime Minister. President Musharraf resigned on 18 August 2008. There were military operations against the Taliban in the north-west region of the country. Osama bin Laden was killed at his home near Pakistan Military Academy by the USA. Gillani was found inclined towards Russia. Finally, he was ousted on 26 April 2012. Pervez Ashraf succeeded him.

Pakistan Muslim League (N) won landslide victory in 2013 election. Newaz Sharif became the Prime Minister in May 2015, but had to quit in 2017. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was Prime Minister till mid 2018. However, PML (N) government was dissolved after completion of its term.

In 2018 general election, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won and formed the government. Imran Khan was elected Prime Minister with Arif Alvi as President. Imran tried his best to convince the Taliban in Afghanistan into peace talks. He faced a looming debt crisis, which, in fact, reached at this stage over the years. He failed to solve macroeconomic problems of the country and instead of IMF, preferred aids from allies, including China. Protests and rallies by political parties were going on against PTI government. There was a vote of no-confidence in March 2021, but he narrowly survived. Political opposition to Khan broadened as he fell out of favour with the military establishment and as inflation sustained throughout his term led to rising frustration. Last month, the opposition moved to hold a vote of confidence. Finally, it was held on 11 April and Imran Khan lost his premiership.

Imran Khan left the power when Pakistan stands on its feet already trembled with lot of serious problems in the political, economic and security sectors. For Shehbaz Sharif, it would not be possible to mitigate those within a period of eighteen months. As it is like an interim government, then politically, he might survive. Even he could get supports from the generals, though the past history of Pakistan in this regard is not so sweet. Concerning foreign debt, it would be difficult to produce something positive whatever the measures he takes, either short-term or long-term. This might be a dangerous issue for his future political strategy. Sri Lanka is in front of us to remind the severe consequences of such foreign loans. Shehbaz Sharif has to handle very carefully the Taliban in Pakistan, but it would not be so easy.

Imran Khan will not sit idle at home. There remains every possibility of political unrest, rallies and public gatherings by the opposition parties that might make Pakistan’s political environment dusty. As the next national election is coming nearer, anti-Shehbaz political activities might aggravate the situation. The overall scenario seems to be complicated by the burden of foreign debt and Pakistan might face a real crisis. And that might make Shehbaz’s future political plan to win in the next election difficult.

Though Shehbaz Sharif has expressed his intention to improve Pakistan’s relations with India, but nobody can predict any positive development. Pakistan’s relation with Afghanistan’s present government is also an important factor, particularly for addressing Taliban militancy. Perhaps, there would be no problem in maintaining its relations with its trusted friend China, though one cannot ignore the repayment of Chinese loan issue. Above all, global political equation, particularly with USA counts a lot. 

Mr. Sharif is not a clean politician. Besides corruption, there is murder charge against him. A case had also been filed against him for money laundering. Even he was arrested. Those issues might be the trumpcards in the hands of the opposition parties during the coming general elections. Anyway, using his present position he might try to wash out those. If the next election could be held in 2023 and the country gets a good leadership, might be the clouds floating in the sky of Pakistan would start disappearing. But that remains a million-dollar question, because the history of Pakistan’s politics never allowed any change to occur in its existing characters.

(The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary)

Source: Sun Editorial