Despatch from Lahore | International

A year of promises, crackdown & censorship in Pakistan

In this photo released by Pakistan's Press Information Department, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain, center, administers oath to newly-elected Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, at Presidential Palace in Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. Pakistan's cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan was sworn in as prime minister on Saturday despite protests by opposition parties, which accuse the security services of intervening on his behalf in last month's elections. (Press Information Department via AP)  

It’s been a year since the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) formed its government in Islamabad. Opposition parties, including the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), had alleged that the 2018 general elections had been rigged in favour of Imran Khan’s PTI. But nothing stopped Mr. Khan becoming the Prime Minister.

A year later, many issues still remain the same, if not worse, according to political analysts. “What do they have to show? All they have done is to repeat the mantra of ‘chor, daaku, luteray’ [thieves, dacoits and looters] for the Opposition, while not doing much for the people of Pakistan, said Iftikhar Ahmad, a senior journalist. “The PTI is on a mission to eliminate the Opposition. That’s all this government is interested in.”

The PTI used to accuse other parties of nepotism. “Look at all the key positions in the government organisations today — all have been given to PTI cronies. Where is the tabdeeli [change]. It’s all talk but things on the ground remain the same; in fact, they have got worse under this regime,” said Mr. Ahmad. He added six years of the PTI’s provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa shows that they have no plan for improvement anywhere.

A senior political analyst, who did not want to be named, said people are now questioning if it is now Imran Khan vs Prime Minister Imran Khan as his popular rhetoric has caught up with the hard reality of governance. “Imran Khan stands in the category of ‘great popular’ leaders like [Donald] Trump, [Narendra] Modi, [Vladimir] Putin, [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and some others who think the press is the enemy rather than questioning their own failures and shortcomings.”

‘Middle ages’

Media is going through one of its worst phases of censorship. A journalist working for a leading TV channel said: “If I could tell you the stories of censorship, you would think Pakistan is living in the middle ages. Journalists are tired, they have given up. I fear, real journalism is dead in Pakistan.”

Recently, two interviews of opposition leaders were taken off air. Several TV channels are reportedly under pressure over content.

Foreign policy analyst Hassan Akbar believes Mr. Khan has performed better on foreign policy than other areas. His deft, yet resolute, handling of the Pulwama crisis earned him praise at home and abroad, he said. “The decision to retaliate after Balakot and subsequently release Wing Commander Abhinandan [Varthaman] as a gesture of de-escalation demonstrated an appreciation of the horrors of conflict. Despite heightened tensions with India, Imran Khan has consistently offered dialogue to New Delhi.”

Perhaps Mr. Khan’s greatest success this year has been his ability to open new avenues of engagement in Washington, Mr. Akbar added. “Pakistan’s help in reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan has played a major role in rejuvenating the bilateral relationship. But pressure from the U.S. on FATF [Financial Action Task Force], delivering a withdrawal agreement (from Afghanistan) and cracking down on non-state actors will likely continue.”

Economic expert Hasaan Khawar believes the government did better in managing the economy, especially after Hafeez Sheikh replaced Asad Umar as Finance Minister, than the initial months. “I don’t think they have done badly in the last few months but in terms of managing people’s expectations, they have not done a good job.”

In May, the International Monetary Fund agreed to lend Pakistan $6 billion to bail it out of a balance-of-payments crisis. In return, the government has promised to initiate economic reforms. Economic growth is expected to fall to less than 4% in the current fiscal, from 5.8% last year.

Mr. Khawar said a lot of people thought that the PTI would be able to deal with the structural economic issues. “Much is still to be seen. They have set up a very ambitious revenue target, devalued the currency, and increased gas and electricity tariffs, but more important is how they deal with some of the deep-rooted issues like privatisation and export growth, and how the government manages the IMF programme.”

According to senior editor and journalist Rashed Rahman, a crisis is brewing. “The economy, Parliament and policy are all in disarray.”

Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore


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