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June 29, 2020

Cracks in the palace


June 29, 2020

ISLAMABAD: Caught in heavy turbulence triggered by the fallout from the Coronavirus, an increasingly dismal economy and a ruling structure in disarray, prime minister Imran Khan faces widening cracks in his ruling structure with unpredictable consequences.

Almost two years after the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) burst through the barriers of a political system long dominated by two well entrenched parties, there is a palpable sense of increasingly insurmountable challenges emerging across the country.

The cracks in the proverbial ruling palace in Islamabad are all too visible to be ignored, prompting a volley of speculation predicting that time is running out fast for the ruling alliance.

On Friday, the spectacular increase in domestic fuel prices by up to a third promise to dramatically tighten already squeezed budgets of Pakistan’s average households.

The unprecedented increase followed an earlier failure by the relevant authorities to calculate the losses to Pakistan’s oil marketing companies, after they were forced to sell their stocks at rates significantly below their cost of imports.

As Pakistan’s economic belt tightening becomes unprecedented in the nation’s history, the country’s politics have simultaneously become an uphill battle.

The decision earlier in June by the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) to exit the ruling alliance in Parliament has only made the PTI-led government look vulnerable. Though the PTI still theoretically commands a simple majority in Parliament, its already slim edge has become slimmer.

Dissent as opposed to unity at a time of an unprecedented national crisis has become the oft repeated word across Pakistan’s power corridors. Meanwhile in the past week, science minister Fawad Chaudhary’s public remarks targeting other PTI stalwarts not only exposed more than just a simmering political discord behind the scenes. Even by the standards of Pakistan’s periodically uncertain politics, Chaudhary’s exposé has become an unprecedented case of ‘dirty linen washed in public’.

For months there have been recurring reports of behind the scenes infighting within the ruling camp, as Pakistan’s rulers tried to unsuccessfully take charge of a proverbial ship caught in a growing typhoon. Surrounded by an otherwise bleak outlook, the government has sought to take some comfort from early signs of a minor dip in the number of new Coronavirus cases across Pakistan. But with the pandemic far from over and its future trends surrounded with deep uncertainty, the early signs are hardly reassuring.

Indeed, seasoned healthcare experts are quick to warn that the worst may be yet to come, given how trends have progressed elsewhere across the world in recent months, surprising even some of the world’s best trained public health experts.

For the moment, prime minister Khan may draw comfort from successfully overseeing a tightening of the noose around key opposition figures.

Aside from controversy surrounding some of the tactics used by the National Accountability

Bureau or NAB to pursue its targets, the scale of the crisis surrounding

Pakistan far exceeds any likely gains from an aggressive cleanup repeatedly promised by Khan.

With the challenges confronting Pakistan becoming increasingly acute than ever before in the nation’s history, the task at hand is well beyond the caliber of a single political party notably one showing some very visible cracks.

For Pakistan, the risk is all too evident. A ruling party backed by smaller regional parties commanding a far from a sizeable majority in Parliament, just doesn’t have the weight to carry Pakistan through the prevailing turmoil.

The latest oil price shock has raised fresh questions over the ability of Prime Minister Khan and his team to fathom the challenges at hand.

Without a clear appreciation of those challenges, it’s difficult to attach any hope for solutions that will help Pakistan turn the corner.

For the moment, Prime Minister Khan remains on a visibly combative course, refusing to build ranks either to the mainstream opposition or other vital players across Pakistan. In sharp contrast, backing novel ideas such as the creation of a new ‘Tiger Force’ to combat the Coronavirus only promises to deepen an already far too visible sense of despair.

Creation of the Tiger Force may be driven by a populist motive though without relevance to Pakistan’s increasingly complicated reality.

In fact, the force which has already been dubbed as ‘PTi’s Tigers’ may well deepen the divisions across the landscape of Pakistan’s politics and society.

As the combination of storms surrounding Pakistan grow in size and intensity, some of the

PTI’s fanciful ideas may be left trailing behind an increasingly challenging future. As the threats to Pakistan’s outlook continue to grow without a clear view of remedial measures, the cracks in Islamabad’s ruling palace will likely grow deeper.

It is a fundamental reality that is set to hit Prime Minister Khan and his team irrespective of whether they like it or not.