With reforms flagging, is Pakistan PM Imran Khan chasing a mirage?

In this file photo, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks to members of media after casting his vote at a polling station during the general election in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 25, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 28 December 2018
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With reforms flagging, is Pakistan PM Imran Khan chasing a mirage?

  • Can the reformist Prime Minister tackle the numerous challenges facing Pakistan to shape a lasting transformation

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan may have promised the country a new beginning, but four months after taking power his government appears to be making little progress on its promised wide-ranging reforms. 

Few expected miracles, but nevertheless Khan’s vision for a new Pakistan, based on an 11-point agenda, was nationally welcomed. 

His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party proposed revolutionary reforms to improve education, health, revenue generation, investment, employment, agriculture, federation, the environment, tourism and justice, and to eradicate corruption.

PTI won the election by a paper-thin majority, dislodging Pakistan’s influential political dynasties and forming a coalition.

“A new Pakistan needs a new mindset,” the new prime minister said in his inaugural address to the nation, promising positive change during his five-year tenure. “We will make Pakistan a welfare state. We have to save Pakistan. One day it will happen. No one will take charity but give. That’s my vision.”

However, the celebrations were short-lived, with the government struggling to cope with cumbersome domestic and foreign issues. 

Khan was criticized for making U-turns on some commitments. “The leader who does not do timely U-turns is not a real leader,” he replied. 

A few weeks after the coalition government completed its first 100 days,  “Khan seems to be out of sync with the enormity of the challenges and problems facing the leadership,” journalist and author Zahid Hussain told Arab News.

“He has been confrontational (with the opposition) rather than defusing the situation. He needs the support of some of those political groups to pass legislation and reforms in Parliament.”

Political analyst Qamar Cheema said Khan and his Cabinet “failed to give time to Parliament” and hear the people’s representatives.

Highlighting Khan’s poor attendance at National Assembly sessions, Cheema added: “There has been virtually no legislation since PTI assumed power.”

The National Assembly and Senate appear dysfunctional due to mudslinging. Of the 49 reforms packaged in its 100-day agenda, PTI’s only success has been the formation of a task force to combat corruption. 

Khan’s quest to bring back looted money has led to understandings with the UK, UAE and Switzerland. Pakistan’s anti-corruption watchdog is widening the net to catch culprits residing abroad. 

At home, the accountability drive has “exposed itself to allegations of conducting a political witch hunt,” said Hussain. 

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has been accused of using ruthless methods to extract statements from alleged white-collar criminals and target opposition leaders.              

Musharraf Zaidi, a former government adviser, said: “Khan has built a political party on the basis of a tricky proposition: That the core of Pakistan’s problem is the corruption of public figures and former government officials.

“If Khan continues to pursue the issue, he will face conflicts. He needs to approach the governance challenge from a technical rather than a political perspective.

“Khan will find that the country’s primary problem is the absence of the will, capacity and resources to do better. If he brings the will, the capacity and resources will follow. Corruption will be reduced as a direct consequence of the change in the state’s priorities,” he said.

“In short, Khan can be very successful if he invests himself
in solving the problems of ordinary Pakistanis, rather than chasing mirages.”

With a skyrocketing population of over 207 million, Pakistan at 71 is marginally older than the average life expectancy of its citizens. The country has a checkered history of military and civilian rule, social conditions have deteriorated, and unchecked population growth is causing increasing strain. 

Khan is known for his success in philanthropy, but can he produce similar results at the macro level?

“At the societal level he has vowed to bring a lot of changes, and he will be successful, especially in the spheres of education and health,” Quaid-e-Azam University Prof. Dr. Zafar Jaspal told Arab News. “These are two major challenges in Pakistani society.”

Direct control of two of Pakistan’s four major provinces (Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), and a coalition partner governing a third (Baluchistan), is a big advantage for PTI, said Hussain. 

But the country’s ailing economy, inherited from the previous government, is an impediment to PTI’s goals. Finance Minister Asad Umar said Khan is aware of the severity of the economic situation. 

Saudi Arabia pledged $6 billion on Khan’s second visit to the Kingdom, and has delivered $2 billion to shore up Pakistan’s foreign reserves. Islamabad is seeking similar relief packages from the UAE and China.

Umar said borrowing from friendly countries ahead of an expected bailout by the International Monetary Fund is
the only viable option for immediate relief. 

The government has initiated austerity measures to cut spending, but economic experts warn that too much belt-tightening could have tremendous political repercussions.

Umar said: “I have absolutely no doubt that within five years the people of Pakistan will look back and say we moved in the direction we wanted the country to move.”    

But Jaspal said: “I’m not confident that they (the government) will be able to bring us out of this mess.”

International credit rating agency Fitch downgraded Pakistan’s ranking to B- in reaction to its weakening capacity to service rising debt. Foreign currency reserves have dropped to $7.3 billion, equal to 90 days of import cover.

The agency said government measures to decelerate imports and gradually strengthen exports may not be enough to rebuild the country’s reserves. 

Islamabad has between $7 billion and $9 billion in sovereign debt repayment, with $1 billion due in April 2019.

Meanwhile, there have been no visible signs of improvement in relations with Pakistan’s neighbors or the West since Khan became prime minister. 

Foreign policy is largely seen as under the Pakistani army’s control, but there is a civil-military harmony that was lacking under the previous administration. 

Khan’s popularity has dipped, according to Gallup Pakistan, the country’s leading research institution.

But Hussain said Khan’s relations with the military remain good, “which has given him some semblance of stability.”

The prime minister has been pushing his administration hard for deliverables.

“We have to take every step for the betterment of the people. People are at the center of our government policies,” he said. 

Jaspal said: “It is too early to expect anything from PTI … There isn’t a constructive view from the media.”

Meanwhile, Hussain warned of turbulence “in the months ahead.”


Hong Kong police begin to clear streets of protesters

An ambulance is pictured surrounded by thousands of protesters dressed in black during a new rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong on June 16, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 17 June 2019
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Hong Kong police begin to clear streets of protesters

  • Nearly 2 million of the city’s 7 million people turned out on Sunday, according to estimates by protest organizers

HONG KONG: Hong Kong police and protesters faced off Monday as authorities began trying to clear the streets of a few hundred who remained near the city government headquarters after massive demonstrations that stretched deep into the night before.
The police asked for cooperation in clearing the road. Protesters, many in masks and other gear to guard against possible use of tear gas, responded with chants, some kneeling in front of the officers. The move came after activists rejected an apology from the city’s top leader for her handling of legislation that has stoked fears of expanding control from Beijing in this former British colony.
Hundreds of protesters sat on and along a main road through downtown, but they were scattered over a relatively wide area.
Activists called on Hong Kong residents to boycott classes and work, though it was unclear how many might heed that call.
Nearly 2 million of the city’s 7 million people turned out on Sunday, according to estimates by protest organizers. Police said 338,000 were counted on the designated protest route in the “peak period” of the march. A week earlier as many as 1 million people demonstrated to voice their concern over Hong Kong’s relations with mainland China in one of the toughest tests of the territory’s special status since Beijing took control in a 1997 handover.
After daybreak Monday, police announced that they want to clear the streets. Soon after, police lined up several officers deep and faced off against several hundred demonstrators on a street in central Hong Kong.
The night before, as protesters reached the march’s end thousands gathered outside the city government headquarters and the office of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who on Saturday suspended her effort to force passage of the bill.
Hong Kong residents worry that allowing some suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China would be another of many steps chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms and legal autonomy. One concern is that the law might be used to send criminal suspects to China to potentially face vague political charges, possible torture and unfair trials.
The protesters are demanding that Lam scrap the proposal for good and that she step down.
Protesters are also angered over the forceful tactics by police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other forceful measures as demonstrators broke through barricades outside the city government’s headquarters to quell unrest during demonstrations on Wednesday, and over Lam’s decision to call the clashes a riot. That worsens the potential legal consequences for those involved.
In a statement issued late Sunday, Lam noted the demonstrations and said the government “understands that these views have been made out of love and care for Hong Kong.”
“The chief executive apologizes to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledges to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public,” it said.
Not enough, said the pro-democracy activists.
“This is a total insult to and fooling the people who took to the street!” the Civil Human Rights Front said in a statement.
Protesters have mainly focused their anger on Lam, who had little choice but to carry through dictates issued by Beijing, where President Xi Jinping has enforced increasingly authoritarian rule. But some were skeptical that having Lam step down would help.
“It doesn’t really matter because the next one would be just as evil,” said Kayley Fung, 27.
Many here believe Hong Kong’s legal autonomy has been significantly diminished despite Beijing’s insistence that it is still honoring its promise, dubbed “one country, two systems,” that the territory can retain its own social, legal and political system for 50 years after the handover in 1997.
After Lam announced she was suspending the legislation to avoid more violence and allow additional debate, Chinese government officials issued multiple statements backing that decision. Lam, however, made clear she was not withdrawing it.
She has sidestepped questions over whether she should quit and also defended how the police dealt with last week’s clashes with demonstrators.
Lam insists the extradition legislation is needed if Hong Kong is to uphold justice, meet its international obligations and not become a magnet for fugitives. The proposed bill would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.
So far, China has been excluded from Hong Kong’s extradition agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.
Prosecutions of activists, detentions without trial of five Hong Kong book publishers and the illegal seizure in Hong Kong by mainland agents of at least one mainland businessman are among moves in recent years that have unnerved many in the city of 7 million.