Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s promise of tackling the ‘four ills’ surrounding Pakistan in the year ahead will be easier said than done. In a bold message welcoming the new year, Imran who was elected just a few months ago outlined the country’s key challenges, notably poverty, illiteracy, injustice and corruption.
To Pakistan’s mainstream population long starved of a decent ruling structure, the message is indeed a long overdue breath of fresh air. But turning this vision into reality will require more than bold words especially given the chronic challenges surrounding Pakistan. Imran’s arrival on Pakistan’s ruling scene has changed the country’s landscape, marking the first time ever that the two well entrenched political parties (the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan People’s Party) were pushed to the opposition.
And the continuing pursuit of corruption-related charges targeting leaders of both parties may well leave them at least half leaderless. But Imran’s foes are not in their ultimate political wilderness just yet, and their future remains tied to the prime minister’s performance in ruling Pakistan At the outset, Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) or Pakistan Justice Movement remains saddled with two key challenges. The new government has placed an unreasonably long agenda on its ruling plate with the prime minister assigning himself to lead from the front.
Clearly, there are limits to how far a prime minister should micro manage without compromising the quality of government. From matters related to tourism and a large housing project to going after corruption, Imran appears to be the man personally on the deck. This stands in sharp contrast to a more tenable structure where duties are assigned to other team players and they are ultimately held to account for their performance. The other challenge is indeed even more compelling. Imran has brought a cabinet to the task whose abilities are being questioned early on.
On Wednesday, a public altercation between Imran’s minister for power Faisal Vawda and well respected Pakistani journalist Khaleeq Kayani, badly exposed the government’s failure to appreciate the obvious. Vawda’s outburst at Kayani followed a question on a controversy surrounding a major public contract going to a consortium whose partners include a company owned by a minister.
Though the government is eager to ignore the controversy, that’s much easier said than done especially in view of Imran’s repeated promises of cleaning up Pakistan. Going forward, the government appears determined to proceed with the contract for the proposed Mohmand Dam in northern Pakistan. This will indeed be a mistake. A more sensible approach would have been to delay the launch and appoint a nonpartisan entity to probe the affair.
In failing to do so, Imran risks becoming exposed to the same types of criticisms that he employed in his opposition days to hit his opponents with accusations of impropriety. In the very extreme, the PTI will likely remain the target of criticism for the remaining four plus years of its tenure unless a temporary strategy is adopted to retreat from this immediate muddle.More broadly however, Imran needs to review the team he is leading and the structure of his government. In many ways, the PTI’s cabinet appears to consist more of vocal individuals armed with strident messages, making them much better suited for the opposition than sensible players in a well-defined ruling structure. Beyond this very obvious gap, the structural issue is even more compelling.
Most pressing issues
Ultimately, the risk from a failure to turn around will come from Imran seeking to lead Pakistan while facing vociferous criticisms linked to a growing number of issues. To any long-term observer, it’s obvious that the most pressing issues in today’s Pakistan are mainly three-fold. They have to do with overseeing a stabilisation of the economy, consolidation of internal security and preventing disunity notably in the name of religion. In brief, that’s where the prime minister ought to focus squarely.
Making a transition from the present will require Imran to decide not only to draw more credible members to his team. More importantly, he will also have to consider his main responsibility tied just to the performance of key institutions. Tragically however, Imran’s government looks more like a crowd and that too a disorganised one at times, rather than a well organised ruling force which is capable of pushing a new reform agenda.
In spite of the rapidly mounting criticism, Imran and the PTI are still in position to salvage themselves and set the tone for improving their performance. With less than six months after elections of last year that brought the PTI to power, the two opposition parties are in no shape to begin dislodging the government.
But given the enormity of challenges surrounding Pakistan, time may well run out for the ruling structure even before the alarm bells begin to sound in Islamabad. Given that Pakistan’s challenges are much too be obvious, the government hardly needs to go through the learning curve.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.