Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan attends the Refugee Summit Islamabad to mark 40 years of hosting Afghan refugee in Islamabad on February 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi

PESHAWAR: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s coalition government faces a tri-ponged threat comprised of political defections, a spiraling Covid-19 outbreak and a collapsing economy, a triple whammy that some reckon could cut short his elected tenure.

His Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) Party’s ruling coalition, which came to power in October 2018, took a blow last week when the Balochistan National Party (BNP-M) left its fold, leaving PTI with a wafer-thin majority of 179 out of 342 seats in the parliament’s lower house.

With BNP-M’s defections, opposition parties now command 161 seats consisting of major opposition parties including the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Awami National Party (ANP), among others.

They did not form a formal alliance but individually support a unified stand on the national economy, Covid-19 pandemic, foreign policy, price hikes and what they refer to as “undiluted” civilian rule in the country. 

That threat of instability was brought into stark relief on June 29 (Monday), when four gunmen affiliated with the Baloch Liberation Army, an insurgent group fighting for Baloch independence, launched an attack on Karachi’s stock exchange, killing seven in an assault that rocked stability and underscored the significance of BNP-M’s departure from the ruling coalition.

On the other side, some contend BNP-M’s exit is symptomatic of deeper internal rifts between PTI and coalition leaders. The Muttahida Qumi Movement (MQM), Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) and Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP) all reputedly do not see eye to eye with Khan’s PTI.

On June 27, for instance, GDA’s general secretary Ayaz Latif Palijo said in a statement that Khan has failed to live up to his pledges. On June 28, PML-Q turned down an invitation to attend a dinner arranged by Khan for his allies, with party leaders all saying they had prior engagements.

JWP chief Shahzain Bugti turned up for the dinner, but not before holding a long telephone conversation with Pakistan People’s Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Both party leaders have agreed to meet. PML-Q and JWP are most likely to switch sides if political turmoil escalates, analysts say.            

At the same time, local media is rife with reports that PTI itself is marred by internal fissures among top Cabinet ministers.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan delivers a speech during the Refugee Summit Islamabad to mark 40 years of hosting Afghan refugees, in Islamabad on February 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi

On June 22, the infighting broke out into the open when a federal minister publically admitted on June 22 that intra-party bickering has affected PTI’s public image and standing. That includes rising perceptions that Khan’s government has not delivered on its reform promises. 

“There was a lot of expectation from PTI and Imran Khan,” Fawad Chaudhry, federal minister for science and technology, told media. “The public had not elected us or the prime minister to fix nuts and bolts but to reform the system.”

At the same time, PTI stands widely accused of mishandling the Covid-19 pandemic. In mid-May, Khan lifted a lockdown above World Health Organization (WHO) and Healthcare Department warnings for Punjab, which now has an estimated 70,000 potential cases in the densely populated province. Top medical practitioners, many of which are pleading for a complete shutdown, have been ignored by Khan.

The country so far has over 200,000 reported cases and more than 4,000 coronavirus-related deaths.

The economy, meanwhile, is going from bad to worse. PTI’s five-year economic plan promised to create 10 million jobs, construct 5 million low-cost houses, subsidize farming and boost revenue collection.

Two years on, the PTI has not come close to achieving those goals. The economy, which was growing at over 5% under the previous PML(N)’s tenure has dipped into negative territory in just over 18 months.

On Saturday, the government took the nation aback by increasing the price of petroleum products by 66% to raise additional revenue of 234 billion rupees (US$1.4 billion) in the next fiscal year.   

Raza Ahmad Rumi, a Pakistani policy analyst, journalist, and former editor of Pakistan’s English-language Daily Times newspaper, told Asia Times, “These are the early signs of a political storm that will eventually sweep away the PTI government, which has miserably failed to deliver.”

A passenger waring a facemask sits on a bus in a street in Karachi on June 8, 2020. Photo: AFP/Asif Hassan

Rumi said that disgruntled PTI heavyweights, including reputedly sugar tycoon Jahangir Tareen, are working from behind the scenes to sow ill-will among party leaders and coalition parties in a bid to destabilize the government.

Khan has recently initiated an inquiry against Jehangir Tareen, the main architect of the PTI-led coalition, in a multi-million dollar sugar scandal. At least five PTI members have come to Tareen’s defense while criticizing their own government’s political and economic policies.  

BNP-M’s departure was driven similarly by perceived unmet policy promises. BNP-M leader Sardar Akhtar Mengal said this month during a National Assembly budget session that the PTI-led coalition had failed to execute a six-point agreement it reached with the government in August 2018.

The agreement’s main points included the initiation of independent inquiries into the state’s involvement in missing persons in Balochistan province, which the BNP-M claims run into thousands.

The BNP-M also demanded but did not receive a rise in Balochistan’s quota of government jobs to 6% from the current 4.4% and a subsidy for electricity consumption in the province.

The enforced disappearance issue, where deep state security agencies are known to have played a role in thousands of disappearances, was never going to be easy for PTI.

Baloch Republican Party, a Baloch nationalist group that broke away from the JWP in 2008, is spearheading an armed insurgency against the Pakistan army. The army circle claim that India is financing the Baloch liberation struggle and provide weapons to the troublemakers in the volatile province.

Security agencies thus often pick up people they suspect of being separatists or have links with them. Some remain under interrogation for years, but most never return home. Even though Khan enjoys a cordial relationship with the military establishment – the opposition claims his election win was manipulated by the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), he has not been able to resolve enforced disappearances.

Pakistan security forces in Quetta, Balochistan in a file photo. Photo: iStock

Relatives of the missing have mobilized street protests and fought legal battles in the courts, but usually fail to get any information on the whereabouts or the circumstances behind their lost relations.

The International Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (IVBMP), an association formed by the families of abducted persons, gives daily accounts of disappearing persons on their Facebook account. Everyday five to eight people are picked up by security agencies, the group claims.

Ahsan Iqbal, Secretary-General of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz(PML-N), a member of the National Assembly and a former federal minister for planning, development and reforms, told Asia Times that BNP-M quit the coalition for these reasons.

“The voters of the constituencies were pressing them hard to come out of the government because their major demands were not met and the situation in Balochistan was still fluid,” he added.

He claimed political polarization was rising due to the Covid-19 pandemic, growing poverty and flagging economic growth. “These issues need inclusive governance, which is nowhere available,” he opined.

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