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What’s ahead for politically volatile Pakistan?

Kathy Gannon

ISLAMABAD (AP) – Months of economic discontent in Pakistan were capped by days of tense drama. When the week ended, one of the country’s most charismatic prime ministers was ousted, and his replacement was a member of a prominent political dynasty.

And the turmoil may not be over yet, with implications for the whole region.

Veteran politician Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of a disgraced former premier, was sworn in yesterday to head a coalition government of disparate parties spanning the political spectrum from the left to the radically religious. They also have a history of rivalry, and governing won’t be easy.

Sharif replaces Imran Khan, a beloved cricket star, who was toppled by a no-confidence vote, after a fight that went all the way to Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

A look at what happened and what may be ahead:

Newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif addresses during the National Assembly session. PHOTOS: AP
Supporters of Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif flash victory signs to celebrate outside their party’s office in Lahore, Pakistan

On April 3, Khan sidestepped an initial no-confidence vote demanded by the opposition by dissolving Parliament and calling early elections. The opposition, which accuses Khan of economic mismanagement, appealed to the Supreme Court.

It ruled Khan’s move was illegal and the no-confidence vote went ahead early Sunday, removing him from power.

Khan has tapped into anti-American sentiment in Pakistan since 9/11, accusing Washington of conspiring with his opponents to topple him because of his independent foreign policy. The US State Department denies any involvement.

Still, the change in government may be good news for the United States (US), whose chaotic departure from neighbouring Afghanistan amid the Taleban takeover has left Washington in need of allies in the region.

The new government is a collection of disparate parties that have fought each other bitterly.

The largest are Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by the son and husband of Benazir Bhutto, the slain former prime minister. Both are family-run and family-dominated, allowing no leadership challenges.

The third biggest partner is the pro-Taleban and radically religious Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUI) or Assembly of Clerics. Its religious schools are spread across the northwest, not far from the Afghan border, and have supplied soldiers to the Afghan Taleban and the homegrown Pakistani Taleban. The leaders of the JUI also are a family dynasty, led by Fazl-ur-Rahman.

The leadership of all three parties are tainted by allegations of corruption. That includes Sharif, who was indicted yesterday on money-laundering charges. They deny the charges as politically motivated.

They joined forces to oust Khan, but have little in common politically, other than an agenda to change election laws and realign constituencies to improve their chances in the next election, which must take place by summer 2023. They also are united against a return of Khan, who seeks to end Pakistan’s dynastic politics. There are no guarantees their shared agendas will keep them together.

Emboldened by nationwide rallies that brought out hundreds of thousands of his supporters on Sunday, Khan also seems to want to force early elections through “street power”. That could lead to violence, because his base is made up mostly of a passionate younger generation.

Even though the opposition ousted him by citing economic mismanagement, it’s not clear if the new government has any easy solutions.

When asked after the Taleban takeover of Afghanistan if Pakistan would aid the US with territorial rights, Khan said: “Absolutely not.” saying his country would only be a partner “in peace, but not in war”.

He was a strident critic of the US war on terror after 9/11, a stand that resonates with many in Pakistan who feel they have been unjustly targetted and accused of “not doing enough” to stop the Taleban during Washington’s 20-year war in Afghanistan.

About 80,000 Pakistani civilians died in militant attacks as a result of the war, and nearly 5,000 Pakistani soldiers have been killed, according to Khan, even though no Pakistani or Afghan was involved in 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda. Its leader, Osama bin Laden, found a safe haven in Afghanistan to plot the attacks and was killed while hiding in Pakistan in 2011.

Khan has refused to give the US any access to Pakistani territory or airspace for so-called “over-the-horizon” attacks on Islamic State targets in Afghanistan. That strategy allows the US keep its forces out of Afghanistan by using air power to strike militant targets where they find them.

US President Joe Biden did not have a phone call with Khan since his election, lending credence to the conspiracy theories of a rift between Islamabad and Washington. Khan said the US wants a “subservient” Pakistan and opposes its warm relations with China and Russia.

Khan’s government pushed hard for the world to engage more with Afghanistan’s Taleban rulers and resisted US attempts to punish them. Khan was deeply critical of Biden’s decision to earmark USD3.5 billion in Afghanistan’s reserves held in the US for the families of 9/11 victims.

While Pakistan resisted recognition of the Taleban under Khan, it led efforts to move the world in that direction. He justified some of the Taleban’s restrictive rules, such as stopping education for girls beyond the sixth grade, on tradition and culture. That raised the ire of many, even those in Afghanistan.

Washington is likely to find more willing and like-minded partners among the new government in dealing with Afghanistan’s Taleban rulers.

The opposition said Khan had failed to properly manage the economy, with both inflation and energy prices soaring.

He tried last month to cut the price of gas at the pump by PKR10, but it’s almost certain his successors will have to raise them again. Pakistan is also a net importer of oil and gas from Russia.

The family of the new prime minister controls one of Pakistan’s biggest business houses, owning sugar and steel mills. Sharif’s win strengthened the Pakistani rupee from 86 to 82 to the dollar, and the troubled Karachi Stock Exchange made modest gains.

Khan’s government was praised internationally for managing the coronavirus pandemic with “smart lockdowns” that protected the important construction industry, which provides jobs to the poorest.

His anti-corruption reputation encouraged Pakistanis abroad to send money home, returning USD29.4 billion in 2020-21. That amount is expected to climb to USD31 billion in 2021-22.

But the economic future still looks bleak: The Islamic Development Bank expects Pakistan’s gross domestic product to slow to four per cent from 5.6 per cent last year, and inflation is expected to rise from 8.9 per cent in 2021 to about 11 per cent this year.