How PM Khan and PTI are winning 2023
Prime Minister Imran Khan has far more power than his critics realize, and he has used that power to make five bets that will define the country’s fortunes and its own political future in the short to medium term.
First, Prime Minister Khan bet on Shaukat Tarin’s first growth approach to the economy. I’m a huge fan, as I was in 2016, when Ishaq Dar delivered the same thing. The first feedback from this approach is not surprising either. Pakistan’s current account deficit is growing and without concessional gap financing denominated in US dollars, the growth story will barely begin before it begins to suffocate in the absence of US dollars.
Where Siskin will generate the forex needed to maintain this growth approach at all costs is a mystery – given the hard work the Biden administration appears to want to play with Pakistan. But if Prime Minister Khan manages to record better than expected growth, he will have achieved a small heist with great political potential in 2022-2023.
Second, Prime Minister Khan has bet on an uneven and unstable political balance in the Punjab as a necessary instrument to maintain the power to fight and win the next general election (most likely in 2023). This balance necessitated the appointment of Usman Buzdar as chief minister – a ridiculous choice which is redeemable only if one understands that any other choice would have already produced a change of government at the center. Buzdar may not be much, in terms of governance, performance or even presentation, but he is all Prime Minister Khan needs to secure his delicate triple balance in Punjab.
The invisible hand of politics that delivered the Punjab to it, the easy charge and portable loyalty of the PML-Q, and the petty bourgeois mafia conglomerate that are part of the PTI “core” in Lahore all vied for the role. by CM. By denying this role to the traditional power brokers of southern Punjab, the Chaudhrys of Gujarat and the Aleem Khans and Jahangir Tareens of the PTI, Prime Minister Khan has established an unstable but manageable equation in the Punjab. The cost? Every failure of governance in Takht-e-Lahore reminds people of what Buzdar replaced. But this cost is mitigated by PM Khan’s third bet.
The third bet PM Khan has made is that the Gen Z voter in Punjab will convert to the Gen Z voter of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – that is, he or she will look at PTI when the going comes. Prime Minister Khan hopes that young voters are so excited about his policies, and so disgusted or disillusioned with the Sharifs, that they will vote in large numbers for the PTI – regardless of the poor governance of the PTI in the Punjab. It’s a risky bet, but it’s rooted in Kaptaan’s belief that a relentless brand of all other political options in the country as corrupt, and tireless commercialization of every PTI failure as a legacy of mainstream political parties is that which will prevail. among the 18-34 year old voters he needs to win the 2023 general election.
The risk inherent in this strategy was highlighted in the Cantonment Board polls in Punjab recently, where a bruised and bleeding PML-N managed to score a substantial set of victories. If the people of Cantt Council are still struck by this Nawaz Sharif magic, what hope does the PTI have in Gujranwala, Sialkot and Lahore? This may represent the most substantial risks among the bets PM Khan has made.
The fourth bet that Prime Minister Khan seems to have made is that right-wing populism is a safer political deal than progressive realism. Many attribute the steady stream of blunders Prime Minister Khan seems to be making – on issues like the Taliban and what they stand for, or what is at the heart of women’s rights and sexual abuse, or on the definition of pakhtun nationalism. – Prime Minister Khan’s basic understanding of facts and history. But the frequency and regularity of these blunders demand an alternate theory to help explain this seemingly constant appeal to the Pakistani right.
Here’s a thought experiment: Who would be the main challenger for the PTI in Punjab if there was no PML-N? I would say that the main challenger to the PTI and the PML-N (their constituents are not as different as they would like to think) is a group like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). With the radical right-wing extremists now integrated – thanks to Faizabad’s dharna and all the laboratory-made paraphernalia that came with it – the imagination of the young Pakistani voter is now divided between whether the system in place (the Islamic republic) can NEVER keep its promises. the people, or if Pakistan needs a radical change.
The TLP offers a reform pantomime that delves into the perfect storm of class wars, culture wars, and global change. The reasons why Prime Minister Khan often seems incredibly lacking in sophistication on issues he should be clear about – women’s rights; the genesis of the Talibanization; the place of post-Zia religiosity in the public domain – this is because it is betting on its ability to spill over radical right-wing protest to the whole system. It is a bet that the most reluctant populists have made and lost, in many places. There isn’t much to suggest that PM Khan will necessarily be any different.
Prime Minister Khan’s most important bet is that he bet his political future on alignment with the Pakistani army, and in particular with the base of the security apparatus. This “one page” which has been the source of so much derision (some deserved and others less fair) seems a little different from the traditional “manage one or three or five generals” approach that has defined the leadership approach. Pakistani civilians in civil-military affairs since the Bahawalpur C-130 crash in 1988.
Basically, it’s not so much that Prime Minister Khan is aligned with the leadership of the institution (this alignment is not as stable or problem-free as the troika would have us believe). Rather, it is that Prime Minister Khan is invested in a body of Pakistani national security narratives that enjoy the approval and support of the grassroots, especially the officer class. It is this endorsement that PM Khan is constantly refining and developing.
It’s not rocket science, of course. The prime minister’s main draw turned out to be the same demographic – largely urban, largely educated middle-class Pakistanis – who have populated the military base, for more than two decades. A political demographic that may have made up no more than 10 percent of the nation’s population when it won the World Cup in 1992 is likely to be significantly larger in size in the nation’s population, until to maybe half the population.
As we head into October 2021, these five bets from Prime Minister Khan are the ones that will determine the country’s near-term future. The results in Afghanistan, negotiations with the global financial system, national harmony, and the ability to fight and defeat a resurgent TTP are all conversations that will shape the next general election.
Prime Minister Khan needs GDP growth, he needs to continue to foil intrigue in Lahore by using Buzdar as a lure, he needs enough young Punjabis and Pakhtuns to believe in him, he needs to push and push and to overtake the radical Muslim right wing of the country, and he must keep the imagination of the military base on the side. If he succeeds in all of this, he could not only become the first prime minister in Pakistani history to complete his term; he can also put himself and his party in a position to win 2023.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.