Shehbaz Sharif must rewind to move Pakistan forward

The new PM has to reckon with Imran Khan’s tainted legacy, as well as the record of previous regimes

April 20, 2022 02:53 pm | Updated April 21, 2022 02:57 pm IST

Shehbaz Sharif. File

Shehbaz Sharif. File | Photo Credit: AFP

Imran Khan, who lost the office of Pakistan’s Prime Minister after a vote of no confidence this month, was a good campaigner but a poor administrator. He transformed his stardom as a cricketer into political success as a crusader against corruption. But his tenure in office did not diminish Pakistan’s endemic corruption and, by the time he left office, rumours swirled about the corruption of several people close to Mr. Khan.

Back to Purana Pakistan

The Naya (new) Pakistan promised by Mr. Khan did not materialise but he has muddied the waters for a return to Purana (old) Pakistan. In addition to the economic and foreign policy challenges he leaves behind, Mr. Khan has also disrupted Pakistani society. His supporters believe his conspiracy theories and consider anyone other than him as a crook, a traitor, or a foreign agent. As he left office, Mr. Khan even brought into question the integrity of the Supreme Court and the military, although, as Prime Minister, he had called for a law to punish criticism of these institutions.

Pakistan’s human rights record, never particularly good, worsened under Mr. Khan. Curbs on the media increased, enforced disappearances went up, and mob violence in the name of religion continued as the Prime Minister fuelled rhetoric about Islamophobia and lack of respect of Islam’s Prophet by followers of other faiths.

The country is now ruled by a coalition of the same traditional politicians whom Mr. Khan and his supporters detest. The Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif (PML-N), the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and the religious Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) share a commitment to electoral democracy but disagree on many things. Moreover, Mr. Khan’s cult-like following has polarised Pakistani society as never before. 

The new Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, has been an elected legislator since 1988 and, in total, served as elected Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, for over a decade. His administrative skills are as widely recognised as his calm and business-like demeanour. Mr. Sharif will offer a huge contrast to Mr. Khan, who knew nothing about governance and who remained an angry rabble rouser even while serving as Prime Minister.

Mr. Khan entered electoral politics in 1997 but made no headway until aligning himself closely with Pakistan’s military around 2011. Suddenly, his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which won no seat in the 1997 election and only one seat (his own) in 2002, saw an influx of influential politicians from other parties. The opposition and political observers recognised that he had become the Pakistani deep state’s stick to beat up other politicians over corruption or getting too close to India or the U.S., maintaining Pakistan’s Islamist identity, and even justifying repression in the name of ‘saving the nation’.

Military’s change of mind 

Just as the military’s support was crucial in his success, its decision to become ‘politically neutral’ proved to be Mr. Khan’s undoing. As a self-righteous narcissist, he had difficulty managing his coalition. In the 2018 elections, the PTI had fallen short of the 172 seats in parliament required for a majority, and smaller parties had been corralled into supporting him. Whenever any of them was upset with the Prime Minister, the military leadership privately told them to stay in line as ‘the civil and military leadership was on the same page’.

The fear that under Mr. Khan the economy would continue to decline and relations with the U.S. and other countries important to Pakistan would not recover led to the military deciding to back away from preventing his coalition from breaking up. In the end, he lost majority in parliament and lost power – a common phenomenon in parliamentary democracies.

Instead of resigning, he had insisted on trying to block the vote of no confidence by accusing the opposition of colluding with the U.S. in trying to bring him down. Mr. Khan was forced out of office when the Supreme Court ordered that the no-trust motion could not be blocked. But he now has a new narrative, of being the victim of a conspiracy, that still appeals to his followers. Pakistanis will be fighting one another over the Imran Khan legacy for years to come.

Meanwhile, while the new government might be able to focus on bringing the economy and foreign relationships back from the brink, it is not clear how much it would be able to focus on issues of religious freedom, press freedom, women’s empowerment, and human rights. That focus is greatly needed for Pakistan’s 200 million-plus people.

Under Mr. Khan’s government, there was a surge of blasphemy cases targeting religious minorities as well as members of the religious majority. These cases were often based on unsubstantiated allegations and resulted, for instance, in the lynching of a Sri Lankan manager of a factory in the Punjab province and other tragic incidents of lynching and violence. Moreover, the London-based human rights advocacy organisation, Baloch Human Rights Council (BHRC), points to the number of enforced disappearances in the last few months of Mr. Khan’s premiership.

For a new start

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has reached out to Baloch and Pashtun dissident leaders. He has distanced himself from Mr. Khan’s practice, sanctioned by the Pakistani establishment, of declaring dissident Pakistanis as ‘traitors’. He has also promised to better protect the rights of Pakistan’s minorities. But Pakistan’s minorities, both religious and ethnic, have heard such promises before.

Farahnaz Ispahani is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, D.C., an author, and a former member of the Pakistani parliament

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