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Pak stares at instability, Shehbaz’s woes mount

According to reports reaching New Delhi, PTI chairman Imran Khan will depart from Peshawar on the morning of May 25 for Islamabad to lead the long march.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif  (AFP)
Published on May 25, 2022 05:54 AM IST

New Delhi: Pakistan seems headed for long period of instability with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif facing a political challenge from his ousted predecessor Imran Khan, who is heading a long protest march to Islamabad on May 25, even as the country spirals into a deeper economic crisis (the Pakistani Rupee’s free fall continues), with the Pakistan Army adopting a neutral stance.

According to reports reaching New Delhi, PTI chairman Imran Khan will depart from Peshawar on the morning of May 25 for Islamabad to lead the long march. The call for the march was primarily for people from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab with parallel protests in Quetta in Balochistan and local protests in Sukkur, Larkana, Hyderabad and Karachi of Sindh Province. PTI leaders have said that Khan will announce his next action plan on June 3, and there is a possibility that the former international cricketer may plan a sit-in protest in Islamabad.

The Sharif government is taking the political challenge head-on and has declared section 144 in Sindh province. It has also mounted a countrywide crackdown on Khan’s supporters.

While the Islamic Republic has been in a state of political flux since March this year, the Pakistan Army under General Qamar Jawed Bajwa wants to remain neutral and focus on containing internal strife and economic stability in Pakistan. Rawalpindi GHQ is also concerned over the fall-out of the Taliban taking over power in Afghanistan as the Sunni Pashtun force does not recognize the Durand Line as the international border between the two countries as it divides the tribal Pashtun community.

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The political game in Pakistan is complicated with Khan trying to play the victim nationalist card and force an early general election this year.

He believes that his popularity with the young and their apparent disgust with the ruling political dynasties could make him PM once again.

Prime Minister Sharif and his political allies want the government to serve the full term till October 2023 while the former works on the economic revival of Pakistan. The state of the Pakistan economy is precarious with high external debt, double-digit food and fuel inflation and a plunging Pakistani Rupee.

Sharif and his foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari have also made strong statements on Kashmir in Pakistan Assembly, UN and China to appease their domestic audience.

The idea of general elections next year also suits the Pakistan Army as Gen Bajwa turns 62 on November 11 and is up for extension as Chief of Army Staff, a position he has held since November 29, 2016. The other reason is that Rawalpindi GHQ has no love lost for Imran Khan after the latter tried to defame the Pakistan Army as corrupt; he also sought to sting the army into action after it decided to be neutral in his political fight by saying “only animals are neutral”. But the Pakistan Army continues to remain neutral even as it watches the developing internal situation in the country with an eye towards the present economic crisis which directly impacts national security.

Shehbaz Sharif’s elder brother Nawaz Sharif also wants an early election before November 2022 so that the new government takes a call on the extension of Gen Bajwa. The argument for early elections also comes from the fact that Khan faces serious resentment among the public for the present economic crisis in Pakistan as well as making the country a pariah with the US and the West. A delay in holding the election could blunt this resentment, and Sharif may well be seen as the man failing to revive the economy, this argument goes.

Either way, Pakistan is in the midst of a serious crisis.

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