The PDM government faces important economic and foreign policy challenges as PTI’s long march slowly approaches the capital
everal recent developments have led to an increase in political polarisation and uncertainty in the country. Top-most among those is the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s long march that is on its way to the capital – currently without Imran Khan, who is recuperating at his Zaman Park residence in Lahore.
Other major issues dominating the political horizon are: the government’s poor performance on the economic front, and the awaited nomination of the next army chief. Further financial suffering remains the only certainty.
The biggest question at the moment is: who will succeed Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa who retires on November 29? There had been speculation that the government will make the big announcement at the beginning of November. However, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif was visiting abroad and has been unwell since his return. The PM’s visit to London to meet his brother, the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif caused the impression that there had been a discussion regarding the name of the next army chief. Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, however, has tried to dispel the impression, stating: “No such issue was discussed.”
Various names have been circulating in the power corridors and social circles. Sources close to the prime minister, quarantined on account of Covid-19, say that the appointment may be notified any day.
On the other hand, the PTI and its chairman Imran Khan are also struggling to maintain their momentum and popularity, garnered after brandishing the cypher and describing the no-confidence motion as a US conspiracy. Khan, who has been politically active since his ouster from power, has maintained contact with his supporters despite being wounded in an attempt on his life. The long march that he led from Lahore is still on the GT Road. Khan daily addresses the participants through a video link.
Over the last couple of months, Khan has suffered a number of setbacks including the ruling in the foreign funding case; a contempt of court case for allegedly threatening a judge; another contempt of court case for violating the Supreme Court’s May 25 order; the Tosha Khana case; and his leaked audios. However, these setbacks have not caused a visible dent in his popularity.
The latest revelations about the Tosha Khana gifts have the potential to damage his image. A Dubai-based businessman, Umar Zahoor, has claimed to have bought an expensive wristwatch gifted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to Imran Khan, from Farhat Shahzadi alias Farah Gogi and Shahzad Akbar. Zahoor, claims he can prove that he bought the rare watch and three other Toshakhana gifts from Farhat for 7.5 million UAE dirhams, paid in cash.
The businessman appeared on Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada Kay Sath on Geo News and showed some of the ‘evidence’ linked to the purchase. In an affidavit, Zahoor says: “I Umar Farooq, s/o late Zahoor Ahmed, currently residing at Muhammad Bin Rashid City, District One, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) do hereby solemnly affirm and declare on oath that I was introduced to Ms Farhat Shahzadi by Mr Shehzad Akbar and bought the following ornaments, jewellery set 2 by Graff from Ms Farhat Shahzadi having CNIC No 35201-2625741-8 and Passport No BP5147413 for AED Seven Million and Five Hundred Thousand Dirhams (AED 7,500,000) paid as cash.”
Over the past few months, Khan has suffered a number of setbacks including the ruling in foreign funding case; a contempt of court case for threatening a judge; another contempt of court case for violating the Supreme Court’s May 25 order; the Tausha Khana case; and his leaked audios. However, none of these has made a visible dent in his popularity.
Imran Khan and the PTI have strongly reacted to Zahoor’s claim and called him a fraudster. Khan has told the Election Commission of Pakistan that he had bought the Tosha Khana watches in compliance with the rules and sold them to an Islamabad trader.
The PTI stalwarts and social media force seem unable to defend or justify Khan’s actions this time around. Reacting to the revelations, Fawad Chaudhry has said: “Who is Umar? He is a criminal; the PTI has no link with him.” Shahzeb Khanzada has since then shown WhatsApp messages of Fawad to Zahoor, sent after the latter appeared on his show.
The scandal can be a game changer for the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) which has been trying to break the spell of Khan’s popularity. However, the PDM is still not in contact with the masses and the government is struggling to anchor the economy. The large current account deficit, the trade deficit, the price hike, the depreciating rupee and expected shortage of gas for domestic consumers in winter and rehabilitation of the flood victims are some of the major challenges facing the government.
Another challenge for the ruling alliance is Imran Khan’s anti-government narrative and pressure for immediate elections. Together, these challenges have effectively isolated the ruling alliance from the masses and their support base.
Former president Asif Ali Zardari, the ‘brains behind the no-confidence motion,’ has been resting following health concern and has not been in any public gatherings. The PPP chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is busy on the foreign policy front, trying to mend ties with several countries. Being the PPP’s big crowd-puller, it is important for him to maintain contact with the voters. However, he cannot spare time for mass rallies right now. The party’s Sindh chapter is active in view of the upcoming local government elections. However, at this rate, the PPP cannot achieve the desired results in the next general elections.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), leading the ruling alliance, has recently suffered by-election defeats in its Punjab stronghold. This should serve as a warning; it should have immediately launched a mass contact campaign. However, its crowd-puller Mariyam Nawaz, has been abroad for her treatment after being exonerated by the court. Nawaz Sharif, who can rally his supporters, is also abroad. He might come back over the next couple of months. Hamza Shahbaz has been keeping a low profile and the rest of the top PML-N leaders are in the federal cabinet, looking after the state affairs.
Talking to The News on Sunday, a PML-N insider said: “We cannot immediately face the masses because of the price-hike and energy crisis. We need to first provide some relief to them and then start a fresh mass contact campaign. Our campaign for the next elections will be led by Nawaz Sharif. He is the only one who can counter Imran Khan’s narrative.”
On the other hand, Khan is planning to reach Rawalpindi on November 21 with his long march. Smaller rallies from the Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan will also reach Rawalpindi on November 21 and Khan will drive from Lahore and join them. Will he be able to force the government to announce immediate elections? This appears unlikely as the PDM leaders have reiterated their position on several occasions: they will call elections in 2023. They want to hold elections only after countering Khan’s narrative and blunting his popularity.
The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism and analyst