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A troubled path ahead for the new prime minister

"The charged political environment will likely push the Sharif government to turn to some well tested short-term remedies, such as cash disbursements under a revamped Benazir Income Support Programme, at expense of long-term economic reforms"

After weeks of political chaos and uncertainty that resulted in the removal of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan from the prime minister’s office through a vote of no-confidence, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) President Shehbaz Sharif was sworn in as the 23rd prime minister of Pakistan. Sharif assumed the office at a critical juncture, inheriting a depleting economy, troubling foreign relations and a polarised domestic front. He will have to manage these challenges while standing atop a fragile alliance of 11 political parties that joined hands for the common objective of removing Imran Khan from power but have largely opposing political outlooks otherwise.

One of the major shortfalls of the PTI-led coalition government was its failure to deliver on most of its election promises, especially those concerning the economy, good governance, eradicating corruption and providing jobs. The Khan government was criticised for arbitrary use of power – for sidestepping the parliament on major policy issues and governing through presidential ordinances instead. The PTI’s failure to lead the country in an effective manner resulted in major governance issues, especially in Punjab – the largest province of the country. In that regard, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif must consider prioritising what he can do the best: improving governance. He has previously served as the chief minister of Punjab, where he earned the reputation of a doer during his three terms. However, running the country from the centre in the current political environment will present some very different challenges.

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As the chief minister of Punjab, Shehbaz Sharif had the backing of the central government whereas, in his current role, he will have to court 11 political parties for support before his every move – 11 parties with very different agendas, who know well that their alliance will likely be short-lived and that they will contest against one another in the next election. Therefore, while he will likely benefit from his past governance experience in the province, Shehbaz Sharif will have to resist the urge to replicate everything he did in Punjab, because succeeding in the centre will require more inclusive policies. Any signs of schism within the ruling coalition will give strength to PTI’s narrative against the government.

The current government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will have limited manoeuvring space on the foreign policy front. Since taking office, he has outlined some sound and ambitious foreign policy objectives. But during his one-year term as the chief executive, he will likely focus on balancing existing ties rather than scoring any breakthroughs. The personal rapport Sharif developed with China during his tenure as the chief minister of Punjab will allow him to boost the relations between Islamabad and Beijing. However, the growing rivalry between the United States and China will also pressure him to strike a difficult balance between the two global powers. Historically, foreign policy issues did not have a significant influence over domestic politics in Pakistan. At the moment, the PTI is building an entire campaign against the new government and for the next election, based on allegations of foreign interference in Pakistan’s national politics and an alleged US conspiracy to overthrow the Khan government.

The PTI will present to the public any move Shehbaz Sharif may make in the next year to improve relations with Washington, or New Delhi, as corroborating evidence for its foreign interference allegations. Therefore, for the current government, foreign policy will have an outsized influence over domestic politics in the short-term. The former PTI government’s erratic economic policies, along with the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine, have brought Pakistan’s economy to a grinding halt. Bringing relief to the common people worst hit by the rising inflation and growing commodity prices, and improving the economic conditions of the country will be a key expectation from the new government. The challenge, however, will be striking a fine balance between what needs to be done to ensure long-term economic recovery, such as increasing oil prices, and what is expected in the short term, namely bringing immediate relief to the masses.

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The charged political environment will likely push the Sharif government to turn to some well tested short-term remedies, such as cash disbursements under a revamped Benazir Income Support Programme, at the expense of long-term economic reforms. The coming year will be a tumultuous period in Pakistani politics, as the Tehreek-e-Insaf will do everything in its power to undermine the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and its policy initiatives. With new elections scheduled for 2023, the Sharif government must avoid getting into firefighting mode and eschew the lure of achieving some short-term goals at the expense of putting the country on a path to resolving the deep-rooted problems that led to the recent political crisis. Nonetheless, this is easier said than done, especially given the time constraint and the pressure to perform better than the previous government.

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