OPN 200103 Imran Khan-1578050654773
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan delivers a speech during the opening of the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva Image Credit: AFP

As US president Donald Trump prepares for the 2020 US presidential elections, Washington will rely on Islamabad to seek a pullout of its troops from Afghanistan. Heading into the new year, there are increasing signs of Washington seeking Islamabad’s support to press Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders to join a new peace process. For Trump, showing off the success of US policies in Afghanistan will mark a rare foreign policy victory.

Elsewhere too, Pakistan’s relations with the Arab world notably Saudi Arabia, may well generate important dividends. After a deepening deadlock with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in 2019 over events in Kashmir, Imran’s government has entered the new year buoyed with indications of a foreign ministers’ conference from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), likely to take place in Islamabad in the next few months. In view of Pakistan playing host to that event, conditions in Kashmir will likely top the list of discussions.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s relationship with China will remain consistent and strong, based on decades of mutual trust as economic and military ties grow sharply.

However, China’s promise of investing up to $62 billion (Dh227.5 billion) under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC, already appears to have aroused US suspicions over Beijing’s future ties with Pakistan. Going forward, it’s likely that the US will keep up its pressure on Pakistan in 2020 to scale down CPEC as a way to trim down the country’s well-established ties with Beijing.

Across Pakistan, following a powerful locust attack in 2019 across southern Punjab targeting the cotton crop, the challenges confronting farmers will likely deepen in 2020. For the country’s overall future, the plight of Pakistan’s farmers will set the trend.

- Farhan Bokhari

Domestic pressure

While Pakistan’s prospects on its foreign policy front are likely to remain potentially promising during the year ahead, Imran and his team will primarily face pressure on the domestic front. The year ahead will also become significant for Imran and his team as they go through their midterm mark ahead of Pakistan’s next parliamentary elections due in summer 2023.

Typically, by the midterm stage, Pakistan’s governments are known to have faced mounting pressure on public issues. In Imran’s case, a virtual disconnect between his government’s view of the emerging realities and conditions on the ground, remains a powerful reality.

Across Pakistan, following a powerful locust attack in 2019 across southern Punjab targeting the cotton crop, the challenges confronting farmers will likely deepen in 2020. For the country’s overall future, the plight of Pakistan’s farmers will set the trend.

This will be central to the country’s political mood given that up to half of Pakistan’s population relies either directly or indirectly on farm incomes.

In 2020, following the cotton crop failure due to the locust attack and other attacks, alongside income contraction for farmers in other sectors, Pakistan’s farmers are likely to remain hard pressed. Some in Imran’s government will likely fail to recognise this as a crisis given that farmers haven’t come together yet as a singular force to voice their anxiety. Yet, the crisis and its resultant consequences will inflict a political cost on Imran and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or PTI political party as they head to the 2023 elections.

Urban challenge

Meanwhile, conditions across Pakistan’s urban areas will also remain challenging in the year ahead, with the popular outcry over growing inflation leading the sentiment. Meeting public expectations over the next three years or so will remain an uphill battle, mainly due to the effects of conditions tied to an IMF loan programme.

However, Imran’s failure to install a team of ministers and advisers with the capacity to deliver a top-notch performance has added to the rot across Pakistan.

It was only last week that Imran formally halted the pursuit of corruption charges against businessmen by the National Accountability Bureau or NAB-created mainly to investigate public office bearers on graft related charges. Over time, the NAB appears to have departed from its original mandate and began targeting members of the business community only to provoke a backlash.

Weakening Rupee

With Pakistan’s investment climate clearly weakened due to mounting lack of trust between businessmen and government leaders, the long-term investment climate has broadly become lacklustre. Short-term trends such as a halt to a not too long ago sliding value of the Pakistani rupee against the US dollar and a larger flow of investments in Pakistani stocks and local rupee bonds, have been used by the government to claim a robust economic recovery. In reality though, Pakistan badly needs investments that create jobs and generate added value in exports to work against a future balance of payments crisis.

Clearly, Pakistan’s economic crisis this year, which forced the country to return to an IMF loan, may have subsided for now. But is Pakistan out of the woods, despite long-term challenges not being addressed? As long as the answer to that riddle remains in the non-affirmative, Pakistan’s leaders must not take comfort from short-term and temporary turnarounds.

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.

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