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Shehbaz Sharif’s Crown Of Thorns

Pakistan’s new PM will have to hit the ground running as he faces multiple challenges and the wrath of Imran Khan supporters.

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Shehbaz Sharif
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Few will envy Shehbaz Sharif for being in the hot seat as Prime Minister of Pakistan, beset by political unrest, increased terror attacks and an economy gasping for breath. The Prime Minister will need all his wits to steer the country from the current turbulence that can topple his government at any moment.

The younger Sharif’s first term as PM has little to recommend him for a second innings. At that time, he was constantly looking over his shoulders for instructions from elder brother Nawaz Sharif who was then in London. As chief minister of Punjab, Shehbaz had built a reputation as an able administrator. But none of this was on display when he became Prime Minister, behaving mostly as a regional leader bereft of the big ideas needed to spur the country out of the economic mess.

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The Pakistan Muslim League-N had started its political campaign on the slogan that Nawaz with his experience as three-times prime minister was in a position to steer the country towards economic recovery. But the elder brother decided to give the responsibility to Shehbaz and be at hand to offer advice. Like in his earlier tenure, Shehbaz will continue to take dictation from his elder brother.

What Pakistan requires now is a popular government to take the hard decisions needed for an extension of the IMF loan. Last year, Shehbaz had succeeded in getting a $3 billion standby deal with the IMF to ensure that Pakistan does not go over the brink. An extension is sorely needed to further stabilize the economy, but the IMF a tough task master will want the government to further tighten its belt by doing away with subsidies and expanding the country’s tax base. Pakistan’s poorest have borne the brunt of rising costs of essentials including food items as well as soaring electricity bills and are finding it difficult to make ends meet. Most of the poor are also supporters of Imran Khan.

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With large sections of Imran Khan’s voters regarding 2024 as a stolen election, the public mood is already defiant. Additional rise in prices and more hardships could bring people out on to the streets to protest. And Imran Khan smarting over his ouster from office and the establishment’s hand in keeping him out of power will leave no stone unturned to make things difficult for the new PM.

"The most consequential test for the government will be on the economy. It is unclear whether it will be able to muster the support of its allies to take the tough but unpopular decisions to take the economy out of the critical ward," Maliha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former representative to the UN was quoted by DW as saying. "It remains an open question how it will manage parliament in which Imran Khan's party members will constitute a large bloc," she adds.

But it is not just Imran Khan’s Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf that will trouble the new government. So far the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has refused to be part of the Shehbaz Sharif government in Islamabad, while extending support to it from outside. In return the PML-N is backing Asif Zardari as the new president of Pakistan. But if the Sharif government turns unpopular over the next few months or even in a year or two, the PPP can quickly pull the rug and bring down the government. However, till the Pakistan military continues to support the Shehbaz Sharif government, the PPP ‘s pragmatic leader Asif Zardari is unlikely to rock the boat. But the threat will continue to hang over the Shehbaz Sharif government and will be used by the PPP to its advantage.

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Apart from political instability and the dire economic situation, the threat from the Pakistan Taliban operating from Afghanistan is of growing concern. Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban government have deteriorated since it took power in Kabul. Both the Pakistan Taliban and the Islamic State are also operating in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan. The Pakistan army and the civilian government will have to work together to bring the situation under control.

The Sharif brothers will hope to have better ties with India. But for that they will need to wait for Indian elections to be over. Now with election on the cards the Modi government is unlikely to make any moves in that direction till the polls are done and dusted.

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The situation looks grim for the new Prime Minister, who will not get the leeway most new governments get of a honeymoon period. Shehbaz Sharif will have to hit the ground running.

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