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Pakistan's citizens feel the brunt of political tug-of-war

Haroon Janjua Islamabad
May 27, 2022

Political instability coupled with a severe economic crisis has compounded the suffering of common Pakistanis. The country's ruling class doesn't seem to care much.

Policemen fire tear gas shells towards supporters of Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan during a protest rally in Rawalpindi
Former PM Imran Khan's supporters claim the new government has been installed by the USImage: Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images

As Pakistan's ousted Premier Imran Khan vows to overthrow what he calls a US-backed "imported government," his supporters took to the streets on Wednesday and Thursday.

Khan later called off a march to Islamabad but gave a six-day ultimatum to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to tender his resignation.

Khan, who was voted out in a no-confidence vote last month, demands immediate fresh elections. The current administration has said it will push through electoral reforms before it announces dates for the next polls.

Meanwhile, tensions have been high in the capital, Islamabad, and other Pakistani cities, with Khan's supporters clashing with police. Dozens of people were injured during the recent demonstrations as the government blocked main roads and deployed security personnel to quell the agitation.

As if the political chaos was not enough to make the lives of common Pakistanis more difficult, Sharif's government increased petroleum prices by a substantial 30 rupees (€0.14, $0.15) in a minimization of fuel subsidies. 

The move comes as the government negotiates a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) but has so far been unsuccessful in securing it.

The South Asian country is facing an acute economic crisis, but instead of tackling it collectively, the country's politicians have been engaged in a prolonged battle for power.

Common citizens suffer

Abdullah Jan, who sells potato chips in Islamabad, told DW that his business has suffered in manifold ways from the political instability and opposition protests.

"Chips sales during since the start of the political unrest have declined by 40-60%, as people are not venturing out much," the 25-year-old said.

Jan says that protests have hampered his commute from his residence to his stall in a posh market.

Sofia Ali, a tax accountant in Islamabad, says she can't sleep at night because of "loud" opposition rallies in the capital. Due to street blockades, she is unable to park her car near her office. Now she has to walk several kilometers to get to her workplace.

Shazia Marri, the minister for poverty alleviation and social safety, blames Khan for citizens' sufferings.

"A peaceful protest is everyone's democratic right, but violent agitation is damaging our economy and affecting common people," Marri told DW.

"People are struggling to make ends meet due to high inflation. Violent protests have added to their woes," she said.

All eyes on the IMF

The new government blames Khan for economic mismanagement during his three-and-a-half year rule.

Analysts say that Khan's attempt to destabilize the coalition government will complicate efforts to revive the economy.

"Pakistan's political instability has left the country's economic future uncertain. Growing political polarization and protests by Khan have encumbered governance, especially the hard decisions to fulfill the IMF bailout conditions," Raza Rumi, a political commentator, told DW.

Pakistan struggles amid heat wave

The IMF said last week that Pakistan has made considerable progress, but it must urgently remove subsidies on fuel and energy.

"The poor are already hurting from four years of rising inflation and unemployment, partly on account of COVID and shortages, and partly because of gross mismanagement by the former government. Now, they are going to bear the brunt of deflationary policies dictated by the IMF," said Najam Sethi, a veteran journalist and political analyst.

Pakistan's economic crisis is so alarming that some analysts are comparing it to the situation in Sri Lanka.

Need for political consensus

"Tough economic decisions such as removing fuel subsidies and narrowing the budget deficit require a bipartisan consensus. The fuel price hike on Thursday will be exploited by Khan, who will likely launch a new round of protests," Rumi underlined.

Analysts are of the view that economic revival can only be achieved through political consensus, but Khan remains adamant that he won't engage in talks with the government.

"Nothing less than a national consensus on belt-tightening all round is needed to pull Pakistan out of a potential financial bankruptcy. But the chances of that are bleak because of the bitter and sometimes violent polarization in the country provoked by Khan's populist narrative," analyst Sethi said.

Prime Minister Sharif says he is ready to hold talks with Khan.

"But you [Khan] cannot dictate us. We will not be blackmailed [into announcing election dates]," Sharif told parliament on Thursday.

Pakistan faces uncertain future

Edited by: Shamil Shams

Haroon Janjua
Haroon Janjua Journalist based in Islamabad, focusing on Pakistani politics and societyJanjuaHaroon