Following weeks of political turmoil, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is out, Shehbaz Sharif is in, and the country’s streak of political dysfunction continues. While Khan has been the first member of Parliament to vote against his term, there have never been five-year terms for an elected Prime Minister. This sad statistic is explained by constant infighting among the country’s political factions, a culture of official corruption, and frequent interventions of military leaders determined to protect their prerogatives.
The charismatic Khan was hoped to end the cycle of failed elections. He came from neither the Bhutto nor Sharif factions, the dynasties that had dominated Pakistan’s modern politics. His status as a genuine political outsider gave credibility to his campaign pledge to attack the country’s endemic graft. He appeared also to be a beneficiary of the meddlesome military. Khan is now in the grip of difficult economic times four years later. The inflation rate, both for food and other items, has reached record levels. High unemployment; deficits and debts are increasing.
But his increasingly controversial foreign policy also played a big role in his ouster by helping to poison his relationship with Pakistan’s military brass. The generals have long signaled that good working relationships with both China and the U.S. are critical to Pakistan’s security. They know that China is the more reliable long-term ally against India, Pakistan’s chief rival, and that Chinese investment remains crucial for the future of Pakistan’s economy. The U.S., E.U. know this. are Pakistan’s lead export markets, and that good relations with the International Monetary Fund, in which the U.S. plays a crucial role, are important for Pakistan’s economic well-being.
Imran Khan seemed to be heading in a different direction. In the last weeks, Imran Khan tried to gain popularity playing to anti-American hostility in his core voter base. He set off alarm bells in Washington and among Pakistan’s generals with a visit to Vladimir Putin in Moscow on the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That trip was long-planned, and its purpose was to secure badly needed Russian natural gas for Pakistan’s economy. But Khan has done little to discourage the suspicion that he’s a fan of Russia’s President. His government then abstained from voting to condemn Russia’s invasion.
When his parliamentary coalition began to fracture, and it appeared the military supported a bid by lawmakers to oust him via a vote of no confidence, Khan blamed a conspiracy led by “the West,” by which he surely meant the U.S., to push him aside in favor of someone Washington likes better. Now he’s out.
The new Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, represents a reversion to the “old Pakistan,” according to Khan and his supporters. Sharif is 70 years old and younger than former PM Nawaz Sharif. He’s also a veteran politician and a former chief minister of Punjab. His primary task will be to try to restore the country’s economic stability at a time when broader threats to the global economy will continue to create obstacles. But this new government will also return foreign policy to the “old Pakistan” model by working hard at the increasingly daunting task of keeping good relations with both America and China.
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