Is Prime Minister Imran Khan, regarded as a youth icon, losing his charisma and political clout just two-and-half-months after forming a coalition government in Pakistan? The answer is yes if results of just concluded by-elections for the National Assembly seats are assessed. By-elections were held for 11 National Assembly seats, which were largely those vacated by parliamentarians who had won from more than one seats in the July 25 general elections.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) lost two prestigious seats which were held by Prime Minister Imran Khan to the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) of deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a religious party respectively. Imran Khan’s Lahore seat was won by former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi of the PML (N), while his Bannu seat was won by Zahid Akram Durrani of the MMA.
This is seen as a major blow to Imran Khan, whereas the outcome shows that Nawaz Sharif who is sharing uncomfortable relations with the country’s Army, is gaining back political strength to give a tough challenge to the cricketer-turned-politician even as the latter enjoys blessings from Army Generals sitting in Rawalpindi’s GHQ. However, both the PTI and the PML-N won four parliamentary seats, but message delivered through by polls’ results to the former is severe and deadly.
In absence of top rank leaders, the PML-N gave such performances. But this is indeed worrying sign for the PTI as, despite campaigning vigorously by Imran Khan himself, the party managed to win only four out of 11 parliamentary seats that went for by-elections. Although it will not impact the Imran Khan-led government as it enjoys comfortable majority in the National Assembly, the outcome has created a perception against the incumbent establishment and this is what matters in politics.
Moreover, the PTI’s bad performance has taken place at a time when Imran Khan’s leadership is being tested. Pakistan is sinking under the weight of debt. Recently approached by Pakistani officials for the bailout package, International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde said the organisation would require complete transparency on Pakistan’s debt to China under the CPEC project. Also, there are other conditions like exchange-rate devaluation, expenditure cutting and others.
Accepting the IMF prescription also means tightening of screw around Imran Khan’s welfare projects which include creating 10 million jobs and establishing an Islamic welfare state modelled on the ideas of the Prophet Mohammad. Besides, it should be borne in mind that Pakistan would have to do the US’ bidding to seek bailout from the IMF. It will have to act against the Afghanistan Taliban and the Haqqani network. Hence, political and economic challenges that Pakistan will face, while accepting IMF package, is what would be a tough task before Imran Khan. The country’s foreign reserves have already dropped to $8.3 billion, the equivalent to less than 1.6 months’ imports.
Amid such desperate situation, the PML-N electoral show has cast a shadow on Imran Khan’s stardom. It has moreover paved the way for creating a web of political allies by Nawaz Sharif and his followers against the incumbent dispensation. Already, anti-Imran protests have started in some parts of the country. There is a plan to exacerbate it as youths are getting restless on account of lack of job opportunities in the country. With this, there is fear that uncertainty will grow and investors will think twice before landing in Islamabad with their proposals.
Meanwhile, as an old political hand from Pakistan, Sharif enjoys good ties with India, China, Turkey and Qatar. His influence in Washington is well known. He can persuade the US administration to put more pressure on the Imran Khan government by not providing aid to Pakistan or put a hurdle in the way of IMF loans to the country. Therefore, Sharif knows where to hurt his political rivals. He will never give Imran Khan a smooth ride to governance in the future either, as he knows that a fractured mandate which has given the yesteryear playboy of cricket world an opportunity to seat himself on the prime ministerial chair, can easily be taken back at any time. However, for now, PTI supporters would be pulling their hair in frustrations as they know that the establishment favours those who are adored by people.