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August 5, 2017

The new cabinet


August 5, 2017

As the new cabinet took oath on Thursday, we got our first confirmation that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi intends to be his own man, and not just a stopgap leader. Of the 47-strong cabinet, only four ministers are holding the same portfolio they did under Nawaz Sharif; one of them – Finance Minister Ishaq Dar – is also facing a NAB investigation that could lead to his disqualification. The most notable appointment is of Khawaja Asif as the foreign minister, a position that has been unfilled since the PML-N took power in 2013. Relying on advisers had hurt our foreign policy, and as a former defence minister Asif is familiar with diplomacy and should fit easily in the role. Also notable is the fact that this is the first time ever that a PML-N government will not include Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan in the cabinet. His absence – despite reports that Abbasi tried to persuade him to stay on – hints at possible future trouble within the PML-N. Nisar’s crucial interior ministry position has been filled by Ahsan Iqbal, who will now be the point man for security in the country.

Some of the choices made by Abbasi show that the PML-N intends to be more defiant than ever. Mushahidullah Khan is back as climate change minister, a position he was forced to resign in 2015 after he accused a former ISI chief of plotting against the government and being behind the Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri dharna. Those who have been most vocal in their support of Nawaz Sharif, including Danyal Aziz and Talal Chaudhry, have been given state minister portfolios although Aziz is yet to take his oath. Politics aside, the new cabinet will have to quickly get to work. Abbasi has promised to end loadshedding within a few months, a sign that he will try and pursue an ambitious agenda. For that, he will need the full cooperation of his new cabinet.

If the PML-N wants to be vindicated and re-elected in next year’s elections, the best thing it can do is demonstrate its capacity for governance. Abbasi already laid down one governance challenge with his loadshedding pledge and the new energy minister, who is yet to be named, will be a key person in the government, especially with a lot of the CPEC projects in various stages of completion. The finance minister faces a tricky and politically dangerous path in deciding whether to continue with the devaluation of the rupee, which may be why Dar was kept in the position. All the while, the opposition parties – particularly the PTI – will be at the throat of the government. To prevail in the next elections, the PML-N will be looking to shore up its political base and make inroads in the rest of the country. This makes the planning minister especially important as development funds have traditionally been distributed on the basis of political priorities in an election year. The PTI has been drying to dislodge the government from the day it was elected and its efforts have only increased with time. This cabinet – which some have even described as a war cabinet – will no doubt be fighting a political battle, but in that it must not lose sight of the greater duty of serving the country.

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