Pakistan: When the political crisis aggravates the effects of the natural disaster


Particularly vulnerable to the consequences of global warming, Pakistan, with a population of 220 million, has been facing a unprecedented cataclysm. Indeed, almost a third of its territory is submerged due to a particularly violent monsoon.

In addition to damage which already amount to Billions of Euro's, human losses interim is particularly heavy: more than 1 dead, 290 injured, 12 million people affected, 500 million of whom require urgent humanitarian aid. As for the displaced, their number is estimated at 33.

Despite the mobilization of the army, the authorities are struggling to rescue the victims who are crammed into makeshift camps, always at the mercy of the bad weather that continues at regular intervals.

The Diaspora, international NGOs and Pakistani civil society – already hard hit by a galloping inflation and by a spectacular increase food prices - struggling to raise funds needed to help everyone in need. As for the state, it has been displaying its inability to manage natural disasters for decades.

Even today, when the country is devastated by the floods, the political scene is the sad scene of the rivalry which pits supporters of current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif against those of his predecessor, Imran Khan.

The Sharif and Bhutto-Zardari clans against Imran Khan

Former cricket champion and founder of the Islamic Party PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or Pakistan Justice Movement), Khan came to power in 2018.

Despite promises of prosperity and the fight against corruption, his government proves incapable of redressing economy (the'inflation is galloping and almost a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line).

He also fails to neutralize the two main political dynasties of the country, the Sharif and the Bhutto, although involved in many embezzlement cases, money laundering and ownership of offshore companies.

If Imran Khan's main adversary, Nawaz Sharif (who served three terms as Prime Minister since the 1990s), went into exile in the United Kingdom, his daughter Maryam and his younger brother Shehbaz continue, despite internal friction and a few short incarcerations, to defend their electoral and political interests in Pakistan.

The Bhutto clan, through Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – respectively the husband and son of the former two-term prime minister (1988-1990; 1993-1996) Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007) – shows all as adept at countering political attacks and prosecution of which it is the subject.

In 2020, these two clans, which also lead the country's two main political parties (Pakistan People Party/PPP for the Bhutto-Zardari and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz/PMLN for the Sharif), form, with other partners, a circumstantial alliance called Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to counter Imran Khan – an outsider whose election they contest and whose popularity they fear.

The fall of Imran Khan…

Khan's popularity is waning with time. The main reason is economic: the country is crumbling under the public debt (estimated by the IMF at more than 138 billion dollars for the year 2022-2023) and energy shortages (gas and electricity), which affect citizens and businesses alike, are increasingly frequent.

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The government has no other solution than to resort to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but the latter requires the establishment of austerity measures to reduce the deficit. Thus, from 2019, new taxes are imposed, the budgets allocated to the education and health sectors are reduced and the currency (the rupee) is devalued.

These measures have the effect of reducing the economic growth and to increase inflation and poverty, while corruption scandals affect some of the prime minister's close aides. Yet well managed covid crisis also does damage.

Khan is also unpopular overseas. His support for the Taliban in Afghanistan (since the American withdrawal in 2021) is damaging its image. An image that has deteriorated even further since the start of the war in Ukraine in February 2022 : while Western condemnations are multiplying against the Russians, Khan goes to Moscow where he meets Vladimir Putin on the very day of the invasion and announces the neutrality of pakistan.

Its close contacts with China, with which it is collaborating for a campaign of dedollarization of bilateral trade, do not go unnoticed either, especially among Americans.

It is not, however, to this national or international unpopularity that the fall of his government in 2022, but to political errors, the main one being to defy the powerful Pakistani army, in particular on the question of the appointment of the future Commander-in-Chief of the ISI (Inter Service Intelligence).

The disaffection of the army, of which he was nevertheless the darling at the beginning of his mandate, was quickly followed by that of his political allies who reproached him, among other things, for going it alone. The small political parties – MQM/Karachi, GDA/Sind, PML (Q) Punjab, BAP/Balochistan – which had helped him obtain the majority needed to form a coalition government in 2018 are abandoning him. Desertions are increasing, including within his own party, several dozen members of which are voting in favor of his dismissal. Therefore, on April 9, 2022, a motion of censure is voted in Parliament, a first in Pakistan.

… before a comeback?

Forced to leave office Before the end of his five-year term, Khan does not intend to make the task easier for his successor, Shehbaz Sharif. He embarks on a marathon of jalsa (political rallies) protesters and demands early elections.

To everyone's surprise, these gatherings galvanize the crowds and revive its former notoriety, especially among educated and urbanized youth who allow themselves to be convinced that his eviction is the result of foreign intervention, especially American. Imran Khan accuses Washington, as well as part of the Pakistani establishment, of reducing the country to servitude and of acting against its national interests.

In retaliation, he is accused of "treason" and narrowly misses being arrested (indeed, he escapes arrest by taking preventive legal measures). Since then, clashes between his supporters and those of the coalition of ruling parties have multiplied in the streets but also in the courts. His collaborators are arrested, sometimes tortured and his speeches broadcast bans on television channels. However, it remains unlikely that this targeted repression will succeed in making him bend.

His reputation as incorruptible and resistant to foreign forces reinforces a now well-established populism from which he benefits, including at the electoral level. Thus, despite strong political polarization, his party won, in July 2022, a landslide victory in local elections in the province of Punjab, a traditional stronghold of the Sharif clan. This victory undermines the government of Shehbaz which, according to the latest news, is still reluctant to concede early elections which it risks losing.

While Pakistani leaders are engaged in political calculations, society and the economy are on the brink of collapse, which portends a full-scale humanitarian crisis in the months and years to come. The massive destruction of crops already heralds a increased food insecurity. In addition to hunger, the population is also at risk of being confronted with the spread of diseases linked to water contamination. Under these conditions, additional human losses are to be expected, while the political leaders tear each other apart.

Tasnim Butt, Associate Researcher, Observatory of the Arab and Muslim Worlds (OMAM) , Free University of Bruxelles (ULB)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.


Image credit: Shutterstock / Asianet-Pakistan

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