The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Amid COVID-19, a Governance Crisis Looms in Pakistan

Pakistan faces a likely ruling class reshuffle in due time—once the COVID–19 crisis clears.

Umair Jamal
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Amid COVID-19, a Governance Crisis Looms in Pakistan
Credit: Facebook via ImranKhanOfficial

Pakistan’s capital is rampant with speculation that the current government of Prime Minister Imran Khan is going to fall in the coming months. There are reasons to believe that these predictions may come true in the medium to long run. However, this is not likely to happen in the coming weeks or months.

From running a successful election campaign to putting together a government, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party’s leadership has had the unconditional support of a number of powerful institutions in the country, particularly the security establishment. Khan has been given space and autonomy to make decisions to revamp the country’s governance in a way that no other civilian prime minister in Pakistan’s history was able to do. Despite this, it’s not a secret anymore that Khan’s government has only complicated Pakistan’s economic and governance woes over the last 18 months.

Khan has taken the space afforded to him and turned it into a war machine against his political foes. Over the last year and a half, a vast number of political workers who have dared to question Khan’s governing performance have been put behind bars. Khan has used institutional support from various quarters to crush political opposition in the country.

However, this has had direct costs for the Pakistani parliament’s ability to function and deliver through an active legislative process. A number of observers describe the PTI’s legislative performance as “dismal and insufficient in taking the parliamentary process forward.” Khan, who promised to return respect to the parliament, has “attended only six out of 34 National Assembly sittings.” It’s not a surprise that Khan’s government passed more presidential ordinances than bills during its first year in power.

One of the key hindrances in this respect is Khan’s disregard and contempt for the political opposition. Last month, Khan refused to attend a parliamentary leaders meeting to discuss measures to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak in Pakistan. Besides, the delayed appointments of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) members, belated legislation over the issue of military courts, the chief of army staff’s (COAS) extension matter, and other issues related to the parliament’s work are just some examples of where the prime minister has failed to provide leadership.

Moreover, beyond legislative hiccups, the current government’s interventions to improve the economy remain among its biggest failures. Arguably, several institutional stakeholders bought into Khan’s bluster about putting together an efficient team to deliver on the economic end. Unfortunately, even after 18 months in power, Khan is yet to find a team that can materialize his election promises. According to the latest report from the State Bank of Pakistan, the country’s entire debt has “has risen to Rs. 33.4 trillion” ($200 billion approximately). Even more appalling is the SBP’s forecast that the incumbent government is on track to “double the public debt by the end of its term in 2023.”

Complicating this issue is the incumbent government’s chaotic approach to dealing with the serious COVID-19 pandemic. So far, Khan has neither formed a clear and consistent strategy at the national level nor acted decisively in close coordination with the provinces to deal with the pandemic. All provinces in Pakistan are following different approaches and looking towards the federal government for leadership.

On Monday, Sindh province’s chief minister, Murad Ali Shah, said that the “lockdown has not been effective in curbing the spread of the coronavirus due to mixed signals from the federal government.” Last week, Baluchistan’s provincial government arrested doctors for protesting against the unavailability of personal protective equipment (PPE) in hospitals. In response to the civilian government’s fiasco, the Pakistan Army in a statement said that “emergency supplies of medical equipment, including PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) are being dispatched to Quetta” and promised that “doctors will get the equipment they need.”

The federal government’s lack of will to lay down a clear national strategy has created rifts among the central and provincial governments. Khan’s ministers have been accusing the provinces of not handling the crisis aptly while the provinces blame the federal government for not cooperating or supporting them adequately. Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United Nations (UN), has recommended that Khan’s policy decisions should be “guided by the evolving medical science on the pandemic by giving a lead role to medical specialists who understand this, not generalist bureaucrats.”

The widespread confusion has brought pressure on the government from quarters that should stay away from matters of governance. Last week, the Supreme Court’s top judge criticized Khan by saying, “The government is just calling in meetings whereas no work is being done on the ground.” He further noted that “the public has been left at the mercy of God.” On Monday, the court ordered the federal government to remove the special assistant to the prime minister on health, Zafar Mirza, from his post for not taking sufficient measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the political front, opposition parties have found an opening that may not have been available to them for a year. After Khan’s recent dismissal of some of his ministers who were involved in a corruption scandal, the PTI stands more divided than it was ever before. There are reports of forward blocks being formed within the PTI to undermine the federal government. Last week, two senior leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), the main opposition party, met with the Punjab Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, Khan’s ally and coalition partner. This should have “sounded alarm bells within the PTI which is already experiencing fissures in its fold.” Going forward, a coalition of the PML-N and PML-Q to end PTI’s rule in Punjab cannot be ruled out.

Above everything, there is growing distress within key institutions when it comes to Khan’s ability to govern effectively. Pakistan’s policymaking circles should be thinking about the post-Khan era as economic and governance risks grow countrywide. Arguably, the working of the parliament is something that could be bypassed by institutions that matter, but when it comes to the economy, only limited missteps will be tolerated. In Khan’s case, the leeway for mistakes may have already passed.

However, the important question is what happens next? Contrary to all predictions of Khan’s government going down in a matter of weeks, nothing is expected to change in the coming weeks or months. This is due to two reasons.

First, Pakistan is in the midst of a national crisis and the last thing anyone wants to do is to send the government packing, which could start another crisis. Second, it is unclear which party or leader can fill the void if Khan’s government collapses.

The available options of leaders and parties don’t inspire confidence, and there are no candidates that have not been tried before by institutions that make the final call in Pakistan. Hypothetically, if someone can step-in in the midst of a looming economic and political crisis, it has to be the PML-N. However, the party’s leadership remains at loggerheads with several national institutions, including critically the security establishment. At this point, it’s unclear how the issues that have divided both actors for decades can be resolved now. Certainly, the national security establishment wouldn’t want to build another alliance with the PML-N on a weak footing. It’s not something that either side would want at this point.

These prevailing circumstances may buy some time for Khan. However, it’s only a matter of time before his house is dislodged. From here onward, opposition parties, the PTI’s disgruntled allies, existing fissures within the party’s ranks, and growing concerns within key institutions will only continue to make Khan’s job at the top difficult.

When the COVID-19 crisis is over, expect a major reshuffle in ruling circles.