The dilemma that is PTI

Recent political developments and rising differences within his party cadres indicate that all is not well for the PM

Pakistani politics have come a long way, from the worst martial law in the country’s history that was imposed on July 5, 1977 – leading to eleven long years of Gen Zia ul Haq’s rule – to July 25, 2018, when for the first time in the country’s history there was a third consecutive transfer of power through elections. A relatively new political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, took power.

If Zulfikar Ali Bhutto epitomised political romance for many in the ’70s, Imran Khan too was seen by many of his supporters as a symbol of hope.

It was a dream come true for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan when, for the first time in 22 years of his political journey, his party, the PTI, won the general elections. The youth in particular voted for tabdeeli (change) promised by the PTI during its election campaign.

Recent political developments and rising differences within his party cadres indicate that all is not well for the prime minister. But back to back speeches he has sounded confident that his government will complete its five-year term in office.

While those who voted for him are perhaps the best judges of whether he has fulfilled enough promises or not, this much is clear: his reforms agenda is far from being realised. This is true of the civil service as well of the police. His frequent U-turns have also raised questions about his governance style. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, for example, where the party has been in power since 2013, the BRT project is seen as a scam rather than a scheme.

While there is little certainty about the deadly coronavirus, if the situation further deteriorates over the next few months, Pakistan is likely to face massive unemployment and run-away inflation. Things are not moving in the right direction and politics over Covid-19 has already brought about a series of negative impacts. Meanwhile, the Health Card scheme and the Ehsaas Programme have certainly benefited a sizeable population in the rural areas.

Imran Khan’s first two years in power have been a mixed bag at best. His own federal ministers, MNAs and MPAs have admitted to the party’s failures. The most problematic area remains the Punjab. Chief Minister Usman Buzdar is the weakest link in Imran Khan’s chain. As Federal Minister Fawad Chaudhry has pointed out PTI’s dilemma is its internal politics in the Punjab. This is one of the reasons why the PML-N remains intact and the Sharifs relevant. The PTI has more groups in the Punjab than in any other province. If this issue is not addressed soon it can hurt the party in the coming months.

Over the last two years, the prime minister has paid more attention to perceptions of his government’s performance than the actual performance. This is true of his reform agenda as well as tackling of corruption. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) stands exposed after it chose to brush all inquiries against the PTI leaders under the carpet and concentrate on those against PPP and PML-N leaders.

Unlike PPP and PML-N governments, Khan’s relationship with the establishment has remained cordial in most matters. It goes without saying however that the latter expects him to improve his style of governance.

If we were to examine his popularity, the likely conclusion would be that it has more to do with the failures of the previous governments rather than his own political ideology. In the next elections, however, he may not have the luxury of hiding behind his rival’s failures be judged largely by his government’s performance measured against the promises made ahead of the 2018 elections.

The 2018 elections were a turning point for the PTI. While the PPP was in for a shocking defeat, being routed in three provinces, it retained its position in Sindh. The PML-N surprised the establishment as they came neck to neck with the PTI and emerged as a rather strong force in the Punjab.

Despite PTI’s nominal victory in the polls it was not easy for Imran Khan to form the government. He was left with no choice but to join hands with the likes of the PML-Q, with whom he has rivalry from the days of Gen Pervez Musharraf, when the latter gave them preference over him in the 2002 elections.

Despite the difficulty of running such an alliance, he decided to go ahead with a coalition government comprising the PTI, the PML-Q, the MQM-Pakistan, the Balochistan Awami Party, the Balochistan National Party-Mengal, the Janoobi Punjab Suba Mahaaz and the Awami Muslim League. Now, as his government is about to complete two years in power, there is not much to celebrate. The rifts within the party have been highlighted and dozens of MNAs and MPAs are not happy with their ministers.

The next big test for the PTI would be the Senate elections scheduled in March 2021. No wonder then that Imran Khan has given his ministers six months to perform. For a majority in the Upper House he has to keep his MNAs as well as the coalition intact. For this he is going to need someone like Jehangir Khan Tareen who has been side-lined. Tareen had earlier played an important role in keeping the coalition intact through various means. As Fawad Chaudhry has said, the party has just about a year to prove its worth. Besides the Senate elections, the party will have to brave local government elections in July or August 2021.

It has been a long journey for Imran Khan. To prove his worth as a prime minister he has three more years unless the general elections are called early. Besides leading the party into the next elections, it is time for him to think about his party’s future leadership as he will be over 70 years of age by the time of the next polls.

Imran Khan has been lucky so far in that he has faced a divided opposition. It may not be as easy over the coming days. How he copes with the challenges depends among other things on how the opposition plays its cards.

The writer is a senior analyst and columnist at GEO, The News and Jang. He can be reached on Twitter at     @MazharAbbasGEO

The dilemma that is PTI