First-time premier Imran Khan is viewed as a rare breed of politician in Pakistan; one who garners immense public support but also enjoys the blessing of the country’s domineering army that has remained at odds with most civilian prime ministers over the past 72 years.
However, after 18 months in power, his government is struggling to revive Pakistan’s teetering economy, and faces increasing domestic pressure due to recurring displays of poor governance.
But his greatest concerns at the moment come neither from the powerful security establishment — the military and its affiliated organizations — nor an opposition severely weakened through a concentrated campaign ostensibly focused on rooting out corruption.
It is the deepening cracks within Khan’s party, the center-right Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), that pose the greatest threat to his government and his hard-earned political status.
Presently, the PTI and its allies are holding the reins in the center and three provinces, including the northeastern Punjab province that is considered the country’s political powerbase.
The other two are the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, where the PTI was handed a second consecutive term, and the southwestern Balochistan province.
Of the three, KP is the only one where the PTI has full power as both Punjab and Balochistan are coalition governments.
His party stands divided into several groups across its political power bases, something that has affected its performance.
Earlier this year, mounting rifts in his party’s KP chapter forced Khan to remove three ministers from the provincial Cabinet. He also issued a “stern warning” to other dissidents reportedly trying to replace his hand-picked chief ministers in Punjab and KP.
In the center, his three confidants — Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, former Finance Minister Asad Umar and Jahangir Khan Tareen — are often at loggerheads with each other, and it is publicly known.
“It’s unfortunate that our party is not unified. It will harm us in the long run,” Tareen, a former PTI secretary general, acknowledged in a televised interview last week.
Despite being barred from holding public office by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2017 for concealing assets, he is said to be Khan’s top aide on matters ranging from political wheeling-and-dealing to managing the country’s sugar and wheat crisis.
The growing rifts among Khan’s key lieutenants, analysts say, have led to poor governance both in Punjab and the center.
“The split within the government and party ranks has resulted in bad governance — the only potential threat to the incumbent setup,” Salman Ghani, a Lahore-based political commentator, told Anadolu Agency.
After every few weeks, he said, the premier is forced to give a “shut up call” to the “troublemakers”.
“Instead of fully focusing on the problems facing the masses, Khan’s additional responsibility is to deal with divisions in the party,” he added.
The power game in Punjab, the country’s largest province, Ghani says, is the key to all discords among party bigwigs.
“I hold Khan partially responsible for this bitter power struggle,” he said. “Appointing a weak chief minister in Punjab reflects his desire of running the country’s political power base from Bani Gala [Khan’s personal residence in the outskirts of Islamabad].”
Ghani said there were multiple contenders, including Punjab Governor Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar, for the coveted post, but Khan’s choice was little-known Usman Buzdar.
“Now, there are five centers of power in Punjab,” he said, adding that this took a toll on decision-making in the province.
Salim Bokhari, an Islamabad-based journalist, shared a similar view.
“The premier has chaired 70% of Punjab Cabinet meetings to improve the deteriorating governance structure in the province — a direct result of internal ‘leg-pulling,'” he told Anadolu Agency.
Khan’s disgruntled allies, considered to have been holding his otherwise minority governments, also frequently surface as bottlenecks to the cricketer-turned-politician’s vision of ‘Naya (new) Pakistan’.
His government in Punjab, which has a simple majority, depends on Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid.
Coalition governments in the center, as well as in Balochistan, also include several regional parties, including the Karachi-based Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), and Balochistan National Party (BNP).
Both the parties, on and off, threaten quitting the coalition, alleging that the government has not fulfilled its “promises”.
In January, former Information Technology Minister Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui, a central leader of the MQM, resigned from the federal Cabinet on similar grounds.
“Except for KP, alliances in the center, Punjab and Balochistan are vulnerable as allies have frequently expressed their dissatisfaction with the affairs of the government,” Bokhari said. “But again, it is neither the opposition nor the allies but the internal tug of war and poor governance that could drive out the PTI government.”