In mid-October last year, Pakistan’s cricket captain-turned-leader Imran Khan inaugurated a public housing project of epic proportions. As he reiterated his commitment to building five million homes, large crowds cheered their newly inaugurated prime minister, who swept to power last August promising a welfare state to lift millions of ordinary Pakistanis out of poverty.
But coming as it did shortly after Mr Khan had approached the International Monetary Fund for an emergency bailout, global investors were less enamoured. The project made them wonder how serious Mr Khan was about a potential austerity-driven economic rescue package – Pakistan’s 13th such deal since 1980.
Their drop in confidence led to a freefall in the value of the Pakistani rupee, which shed more than 10 per cent, falling to a near-historic low against the US dollar.
This turn of events exposed a tension at the heart of the former cricketer’s government – between building a modern welfare state and fixing Pakistan’s ailing, debt-ridden economy. Since that starry project launch in October, it now seems that fiscal imperatives have driven him to pursue the latter at the cost of the former.
Six months into his tenure, Mr Khan experienced his most difficult week since taking office. On February 14, 40 Indian soldiers were killed in a terrorist attack in Indian-administered Kashmir, reawakening an enduring divide over the contested province dating back to Partition, and the cause of two of three wars between India and Pakistan.
Although the Jaish-e-Mohammed extremist group claimed responsibility, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi blamed Pakistan, which has long struggled to deal with militants operating within its borders. Amid the inflammatory rhetoric after the incident, an Indian general went so far as to suggest that double the number of Pakistani lives should be taken in return. Mr Khan broadcast his own reciprocal warning, promising to meet fire with fire.
It marks a bleak chapter for the prime minister who promised to break new ground in the tumultuous relationship when he first came to power.
This is Mr Khan’s first major foreign policy challenge, one that has naturally drawn the gaze of the world. But although it might not be the focus of as much attention, looming behind it is the equally perennial issue of fixing Pakistan’s many economic woes.
Mr Khan is no political newcomer, having established his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party in 1996 and contested a string of elections thereafter. But with no governing experience, his first few months have been marked by faux pas, mixed messages and U-turns
Addressing the World Government Summit in Dubai earlier this month, Mr Khan warned that Pakistan needs “painful” economic reforms to slash its massive debt. “It’s like surgery,” he told an audience that included IMF chief Christine Lagarde.
Last week he received a welcome reprieve when Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman agreed to inject investments worth $20 billion. It was a fiscal stay of execution for Mr Khan, granting him valuable time and confidence when he needed it most. However, it is not yet known whether the cash injection will affect the size or terms of an IMF package and tough, unpopular austerity measures remain inevitable. Meanwhile, Saudi aid comes with certain conditions: Riyadh has reportedly asked Islamabad to play a bigger role in the Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition, which is led by former Pakistani army commander Raheel Sharif.
Mr Khan is no political newcomer, having established his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party in 1996 and contested a string of elections thereafter. But with no governing experience, his first few months have been marked by faux pas, mixed messages and U-turns.
His announcement of cutting back on profligate government spending by auctioning off his motorcade and transforming the ostentatious prime minister’s residence into a university was eclipsed when it emerged he made his three-minute daily commute by helicopter. Members of his party didn’t help matters by claiming it was cheaper than travelling by car. Meanwhile his proposals to induce growth by banning foreign cheese imports and crowdfunding to build a $14 billion dam in Pakistan’s north-east drew mockery.
Gaffes aside, Mr Khan has made some progress. His amicable relationship with Pakistan’s powerful military establishment is a rarity, although has done little to dispel suggestions allegations of vote-rigging in the July election. That relationship will be tested further if relations with India worsen.
Much of what the prime minister has instigated has been positive. He has, for example, shown great interest in environmental measures, with plans to plant 10 billion trees to combat deforestation and a string of impressive water conservation projects.
But cracks have emerged in Mr Khan’s central pledge to oversee a modern, forward-thinking administration. Twelve of his cabinet appointees served under former president Pervez Musharraf while his administration mishandled the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy charges, who was acquitted in October. As protests erupted following her release, Mr Khan allowed a court to review the decision and bar her from leaving the country, although the Supreme Court later reneged. She is currently in Karachi awaiting permission to leave Pakistan.
All this points to a mixed report card for the new prime minister, upon whom so much hope was bestowed. But one particular challenge has trumped the rest: the battle to reawaken Pakistan’s ailing economy.
Today, Islamabad is indebted to the tune of $100 billion and must rather urgently fill an estimated $12 billion financing gap. It is unsurprising, then, that Mr Khan has turned to his closest allies for support – the UAE, Saudi Arabia and China.
Pakistan is the cornerstone of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s landmark Belt and Road Initiative, designed to guide a new era of Chinese growth. But having instigated some $62 billion of investments in Pakistan, Beijing is expected to come calling for its first repayments this year.
The issue is political as well as economic. Ahead of his election victory, Mr Khan promised to disclose the nature and conditions of Chinese investments, unlike his predecessor Nawaz Sharif, who was criticised for being opaque about any deals. Thus far, Mr Khan has failed to follow through on his promise.
Help from neighbours aside, there might just be one long-term solution for Mr Khan. At the World Government Summit, Ms Lagarde said the IMF stood ready to support Pakistan “to restore the resilience of its economy and lay the foundations for stronger and more inclusive growth”.
But alongside a mooted $8 billion rescue package will undoubtedly come stringent austerity policies, likely to aggrieve the millions who believed they were opting for a new style of governance with Mr Khan, rather than more of the same.
Mr Khan is discovering the transition from sportsman to prime minister is harder than it seems. Cricket matches might be won with flair and rapid decision-making, to say nothing of luck, but the gritty, frustrating world of Pakistani politics is altogether different. And the stakes are far, far higher.
Updated: February 23, 2019 08:45 PM