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 an unprecedented cataclysm since mid-July. Indeed, almost a third of its territory is submerged due to a particularly violent monsoon.

In addition to the material damage which already amounts to billions of euros, the provisional human toll is particularly heavy: more than 1,290 dead, 12,500 injured, 33 million people affected, 6.4 million of whom require urgent humanitarian aid. As for the displaced, their number is estimated at 634,000.

Despite the mobilization of the army, the authorities are struggling to rescue the victims who are piled up in makeshift camps, always at the mercy of the bad weather which continues at regular intervals.

The Diaspora, international NGOs and Pakistani civil society – already hard hit by galloping inflation and a spectacular rise in food prices – are struggling to raise the funds necessary to come to the aid of all those in need. As for the state, it has been displaying its inability to manage natural disasters for decades.

Even today, while the country is devastated by the floods, the political scene is the sad scene of the rivalry which opposes the supporters of the current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to 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 Movement for Justice), Khan came to power in 2018.

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

It also fails to neutralize the country’s two main political dynasties, the Sharif and the Bhutto, which are nevertheless implicated in numerous cases of embezzlement, money laundering and the holding of offshore companies.

While Imran Khan’s main opponent, Nawaz Sharif (who has served three terms as prime minister since the 1990s), goes into exile in the UK, his daughter Maryam and younger brother Shehbaz continue, despite internal friction and a few short incarcerations, to defend his 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 equally adept at countering the political attacks and legal proceedings against him.

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 wanes over time. The main reason is economic: the country is crumbling under 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 companies, are more and more frequent.

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The government has no other solution than to resort to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but the latter is demanding the implementation 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 consequences of lowering economic growth and increasing inflation and poverty, while corruption scandals affect certain close associates of the Prime Minister. Yet well managed, the Covid crisis is also causing damage.

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

His close contacts with China, with which he is collaborating with a view to a campaign to dedollarize bilateral trade, do not go unnoticed either, especially among Americans.

However, it is not to this national or international unpopularity that the fall of his government in 2022 should be attributed, 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 was 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 galvanized the crowds and revived its former notoriety, especially among educated and urbanized youth who allowed themselves to be convinced that their eviction was the result of foreign intervention, particularly 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 almost fails to be 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 were arrested, sometimes tortured and his speeches banned from broadcasting 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 a large victory in the local elections in July 2022 in the province of Punjab, the 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 is already a sign of 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 ButtAssociate Researcher, Observatory of the Arab and Muslim Worlds (OMAM) , Free University of Brussels (ULB)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Asianet-Pakistan

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