Divisive leadership

August 20, 2023

With worsening economic woes haunting his 16-month administration, Shahbaz Sharif made several controversial choices

Divisive leadership


he biggest achievement Shahbaz Sharif has claimed in his 16-month prime ministership has been saving the country from a definite economic meltdown, albeit temporarily. His principal failure has been to protect the poor from crippling inflation. In terms of political management, the crackdown following the May 9 protests proved an over-kill.

Life has never been easy for a prime minister of Pakistan. To be fair, Sharif had too much to deal with from day one. After taking over the premiership following the first-ever successful no-confidence motion against a prime minister, there was a phase of initial inaction spanning over several weeks. There appeared to be a complete pause as no major policy decisions were forthcoming.

The 13-party alliance supporting the government was likely sorting out internal matters and possibly seeking some guarantees from the powers that be. Then Shahbaz Sharif sprung into action – with his trademark early morning visits to development projects, such as the stalled Metro Bus Service to the Islamabad International Airport.

Worsening economic woes – expanding import-export gap, rising debt, rupee’s free fall against the US dollar, sky-rocketing inflation, and limited foreign exchange reserves – were to haunt his administration for its entire length. He took a relatively long time (10 days) to finalise his cabinet.

The change of the economic team leader from Miftah Ismail to Ishaq Dar almost mid-way could not have provided the continuity in economic policies everybody had been asking for. Dar’s attempts initially to support the rupee seemed to have done more harm than good.

In the end we were told that the feared default was avoided through some last minute maneuvering by Shahbaz Sharif and rescue efforts by the army chief. Inflation has been a worldwide phenomenon, because of the Ukraine war among other reasons. However, some countries have managed to protect their people from economic stress through various measures. Given the empty pockets, the Shahbaz government had little room for maneuver.

During the last days of his administration, having reached a deal with the International Monetary Fund, Shahbaz Sharif swung into election mode, launching a popular youth-oriented development scheme (free laptop scheme).

Despite endeavours to benefit from cheaper Russian oil, there has been no significant reduction in fuel prices.

Leading a weak coalition government, Shahbaz Sharif had no alternative except to form a bloated cabinet. By August 10, there were 35 federal ministers (after one died in an accident, the final tally was 34). There were seven ministers of state, four advisers and 39 special assistants to the prime minister. Formally, advisers and special assistants are not part of the cabinet and many do not get a salary. However, they still enjoy the rank and status of cabinet members.

How does one judge the performance of key ministers? The minister of defence in any government in Pakistan is mostly a ceremonial post. Khurram Dastagir’s ministry of power had no remedy for the rising electricity prices in this country. The summer of 2023, however, was much better than the previous year as far as load shedding was concerned.

As foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto spent more time abroad than at home. After taking over the foreign ministry in April 2022, by December the same year, he had made 20 visits to 11 countries. 13 of those were individual visits; on seven occasions, he accompanied the prime minister. The trend continued in 2023. Relations with the US improved to the extent that the two countries renewed a military cooperation agreement in the last days of the government. Relations with the Middle East also appeared good.

Ahsan Iqbal, the planning chief, kept himself busy rebuilding bridges with China to put the CPEC back on track. There was some notable progress.

Maryam Aurangzeb’s daily sermons were generally ineffective until May 9. Her last minute achievement of making sure TV channel pay their staff was welcome. The inclusion of disinformation/ misinformation clause in the bill was not.

Shahbaz Sharif is being defended by some as the most suitable option for the country’s establishment. This might be explained in terms of the many concessions he made to the establishment. His bulldozing of controversial legislation through the parliament during his last days in power, however, could come back to haunt him in future.

Unlike his elder brother, Shahbaz Sharif lacks charisma. His ability to avoid a break with those who matter is his apparent strength. He has demonstrated an ability to keep a coalition intact. His reputation as a workaholic and a better than average administrator has survived the short term. If the PTI is not even on the ballot, as has been suggested by some quarters, he might even make a comeback.

The writer, a journalist for 33 years, has been an editor at the BBC in Pakistan for over two decades. Currently, he is the managing editor at Independent Urdu

Divisive leadership