This article originally appeared in the Financial Post.
By Raheel Raza, April 5, 2023
If ever there was a drama that had the intertwined storylines of Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, it would be the political situation in Pakistan.
Known officially as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the country is the world’s fifth most populous, with a population of almost 233 million and a land mass spanning 881,913 square kilometres. It is the second largest Muslim nation in the world and the only one with nuclear arms.
The most important institution in Pakistan is the army, which the masses accept. It’s worth to note the military has been in charge for half of the nation’s 75 years. Since its independence in 1947, Pakistan has experienced three military coups and has had four different military rulers.
It is also worth noting that no civilian government has ever lived out its full tenure. At one time the running joke was, “Which general will win the general election?”
The nation’s current crisis is no laughing matter however. Pakistan is collapsing financially and politically.
“Pakistan is facing a triple crisis,” says Farahnaz Ispahani, an author and a former Pakistan parliamentarian. “It’s facing a threat from the Pakistani Taliban. A collapsing economy. And, polarization and political chaos on the street. Pakistani leaders seem woefully unprepared for tackling the challenge and continue to fight each other rather than finding solutions for the country.”
Financially, Pakistan is at an all-time low. Pakistan’s leading English language newspaper, Dawn, reports: “Looking at the seven years from FY16 to FY22, Pakistan’s cumulative current account deficit was $74.5 billion, while the State Bank’s forex reserves fell by $3.6 billion during this period. This means Pakistan needed financing of $70.9 billion, and borrowed $65 billion. Foreign investment barely financed the external deficit, so the government just kept borrowing. Since foreign creditors are reluctant to continue lending, Pakistan’s external sector has become unsustainable.”
Politically, the situation in Pakistan is a game of vengeance. Former prime minister Imran Khan was ousted in April 2022 through a no-confidence vote in parliament. During his tenure he had imprisoned many politicians, including a predecessor as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif. Now that Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif, is in the prime minister’s chair, a tit-for-tat game of imprisonment is on.
There is also an all-out turf war going on between Khan’s political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and a coalition of opposition parties known as the PDM — Pakistan Democratic Movement. This is no longer being viewed simply as politics, but personal vendettas at play.
Internationally and geo-politically, the turf war is about U.S. versus Chinese influence in Pakistan. The Pakistani army has always been loyal to the U.S. State Department, whereas Khan was leading Pakistan into a Russia-Chinese camp before losing power. In fact, the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, then prime minister Khan was on a state visit to Moscow. Readers may draw their own conclusions.
Since an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Nov. 3, 2022, in which Khan was shot twice but survived, he appears to see this threat everywhere, and has been inviting supporters to engage in violent encounters with the law. Many Pakistanis see this as a mob mentality and are tiring of Khan’s shenanigans, which they fear are making Pakistan a laughingstock of the world. In the meantime, the PDM seems to have no control over the situation.
This may be the beginning of the end for Pakistan. As the country has been tearing itself apart, institutions have been collapsing, notably educational institutions. But politicians seem disinterested in the collapse of the educational system, unemployment, poverty and a year-over-year increase in the Consumer Price Index of 31.6 per cent. Some families have committed suicide out of sheer desperation.
There is much Pakistan needs to do to regain financial and geo-political stability. Steps that would aid in that endeavour include normalizing relations with India and establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
Perhaps even more critical to the rest of the globe however is the need for an international body to oversee Pakistan’s nuclear arms, to ensure that if the situation destabilizes further, they won’t fall into the wrong hands. This real-world drama could affect us all.
Raheel Raza is president of the Council of Muslims Facing Tomorrow and a Munk Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.