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Imran Khan leaves Pakistani premier's office with a mixed record

KARACHI, Pakistan

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who became the first-ever Pakistani leader to be voted out through a no-confidence motion, finished his nearly four-year stint with a mix of successes and failures.

Khan came to power through a popular vote in the 2018 general elections, promising to bolster a crippling economy, fight corruption and pursue accountability.

His critics lambast him for his mediocre handling of the economy, double-digit inflation and a spiraling rupee.

His supporters, though, hail him for a “corruption-free” government, smart handling of the coronavirus pandemic and an independent foreign policy.

“Imran Khan had a mix of successes and failures. But there is no doubt that he was a different prime minister in many ways,” Hasan Askari, a Lahore-based political analyst told Anadolu Agency.

“What tops the list is that he gave hope to the people of Pakistan, especially the youth, of a bright future. Unfortunately, though, that did not materialize,” he said.

Secondly, he added, Khan shattered the two-party system that dominated Pakistan’s politics for decades, breaking the vice-like grip of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

Endorsing Askari’s views, Habib Akram, another political commentator from Lahore, pointed out that Khan tried to bring politics to the grassroots level, inspiring a large chunk of the population that was otherwise “apolitical.”

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Akram said the cricketer-turned-politician introduced some “conventional” and “unconventional” projects for the common Pakistani, including a nationwide health insurance policy, establishing shelter homes and a monthly income support package for the poor.

The health policy provides a cover of Rs 1 million ($5,400) to every family across Pakistan, with the exception of the southern Sindh province ruled by the PPP.

His monthly income support project, called Ehsaas, was a continuation of the PPP’s Benazir Income Support Program, named after slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Akram credits Khan for changing the Pakistani bureaucracy’s structure that was dominated by just one province, the most populous and politically significant Punjab.

“Previously, the bureaucratic structure, particularly for key posts, was predominantly Punjab-centric. It was Khan who, for the first time, balanced this structure and placed officers from all over Pakistan on key positions,” he said.

Economic hits and misses

Askari and Akram see Khan’s “poor” handling of the economy as his biggest failure during the three years and eight months he served as premier.

Unlike his predecessor, three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Khan inherited a relatively stable economy with an annual growth rate of almost 5.6%, a receding power crisis and a much-improved law and order situation in the country.

As the PTI government faltered in managing the economy, the growth rate in its first three years remained between 2% and 3%.

However, it jumped to nearly 5% last year as economic activity picked up in the country, following the lifting of COVID-19 curbs.

Khan’s economic managers, most of whom were also part of the previous two governments, cited the pandemic as the chief reason for the slow economic progress.

Some critics, however, say the economy was sputtering even before the pandemic.

In recent weeks, the Pakistani rupee has plummeted to an all-time low, currently standing at 186 to a dollar, adding to the country’s already mounting trade deficit, colossal foreign debt and ever-increasing inflation that remained in double digits throughout Khan’s tenure.

“Poor handling of the economy and governance issues have overshadowed his achievements and good initiatives,” Askari said, adding that Khan has “disappointed” Pakistanis who believed he could lead an economic turnaround.

Akram said the ousted premier should have focused on small businesses and industries to generate economic activity, instead of giving “amnesty schemes” and other privileges to big businesses and industrialists.

“This was a mistake that Khan himself has recently admitted,” he added.

There are, however, some economists who see “good omens” for Pakistan’s struggling economy, such as the significant increase in exports and manufacturing, along with a dip in the current account deficit.

‘Poor’ choices

Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a Karachi-based political analyst, reckons that Khan’s choices for key political and government posts were “poor.”

Citing the example of the chief ministers of Punjab and the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, he contended that Khan deliberately appointed “weak” people to these posts to avoid competition.

Sharing a similar view, Askari said: “He (Khan) completely failed in Punjab, which is the power base of Pakistan’s politics. His choice for the chief minister of such an important province was extremely poor, which subsequently created serious governance issues.”

Unlike past governments, Khan enjoyed a cordial relationship with Pakistan’s powerful army, which has largely had sour ties with all previous civilian setups.

Nonetheless, according to Askari, mishandling of some crucial matters, including the extension of current army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa in 2019 and appointment of the head of the premier spy agency last October, dented Khan’s otherwise cordial relations with the military.

Khan wanted to retain Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed as chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), saying his presence was important due to the evolving situation in neighboring Afghanistan.

However, the army chief transferred Hameed to the Peshawar Corps and appointed Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum as his replacement.

A visibly angry Khan did not approve the appointment for weeks before Bajwa eventually got his way.

Another issue between the two sides was Khan’s insistence on retaining Usman Buzdar as chief minister of Punjab despite his poor performance, Askari added.

According to rumors rife in Pakistan, Buzdar was kept on the post because Khan’s wife, a spiritual guide of sorts, saw him as a good omen and warned that his removal would lead to the entire government’s collapse.

The prime minister and his wife have time and again denied the claims.

Askari also identified Khan’s lack of understanding of Pakistan’s parliamentary politics as another reason for his unceremonious departure

“He failed to pull together not just his allies but even his own party members. This egoistic approach doesn’t work in parliamentary politics, especially when you don’t have a clear majority,” he added.

Youth factor

Khan appears to have a significant hold over Pakistan’s youth, who make up around 60% of the total population of over 220 million.

His charismatic personality, aggressive tone and nationalistic rhetoric seemed to resonate most with the youth and millions of overseas Pakistanis, two groups that form the PTI’s support base.

However, simultaneously, he is accused of encouraging aggression and violent tendencies among the youth.

When it comes to defending Khan, his followers, irrespective of the age group but particularly the younger ones, are known for crossing basic limits of decency, especially on social media.

Still, though, many see him as a savior for the common man, be it as a cricketer, philanthropist or politician, according to Askari.

“The game is not over for him. He can make a comeback. He just needs to learn from his mistakes,” he said.

Askari believes Khan’s anti-American narrative may give him an edge in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal belt, which borders Afghanistan and suffered the brunt of Washington’s so-called War on Terror.

Tauseef, nonetheless, sees that narrative as “dangerous,” fearing it may trigger another wave of extremism in the country, especially among the youth.

“It will also harm the country’s foreign policy,” he warned.

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