Strong showing in Punjab . . .
Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the political party of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, performed strongly in Sunday’s by-election in Punjab, winning 15 of the provincial assembly’s 20 seats. With 110 million people, Punjab is by far the largest of Pakistan’s four provinces, accounting for half the country’s population. The by-election results represent a kind of bellwether and a warning sign for Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the fragile coalition he leads. Since being ousted in a no-confidence vote in April, Khan has not receded to the sidelines. On the contrary, he has continued to rail loudly against the current government. He has also demanded that fresh national elections be held before October 2023, as scheduled.
Short memories . . .
It is difficult to gauge how much the Punjab election result reflects genuine support for Khan’s return to power. When he was forced to step down, more than half the population (57%) supported his removal, blaming him for mismanagement that left the country’s economy in shambles. Since assuming office, PM Sharif has succeeded in getting talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) back on track, a vital step in preventing the kind of catastrophic foreign debt crisis that has engulfed Sri Lanka. Sharif recently reached a preliminary agreement with the IMF to release the next tranche of C$1.5 billion of a C$9.3-billion bailout package, although at the price of having to increase taxes and lift subsidies on fuel and electricity, measures that will be sure to raise the cost of living. The payment had been withheld because of Khan’s unwillingness to comply with IMF conditions.
Taking on powerful enemies . . .
An emboldened Khan is not only taking aim at the government that replaced him; he has also turned up the volume in his criticism of the country’s powerful military. Khan has alleged for months that his ouster resulted from a sinister foreign plot, in which “establishment” politicians and Pakistan’s security services were supposedly in cahoots. That message may resonate with some voters, but the instability caused by such accusations could make foreign lenders squeamish about stepping in with additional financial assistance, which is much needed during this fraught time in Pakistani politics.