By Saeed Shah/Wall Street Journal
Islamabad, April 12: For much of his life, Shehbaz Sharif has waited for this moment, for years playing the role of loyal deputy to his older brother, Nawaz Sharif.
Now that it is his turn to be prime minister, he faces hurdles that will likely make his term rocky, including an economic tailspin, tricky relations with the country’s military and a potent challenge from former leader Imran Khan. He will also have to hold together an unwieldy political coalition.
“We are inheriting an almost impossible situation,” said Musadik Malik, a senator for the party led by the new prime minister. “The numbers are not adding up in the economy. Our foreign relations are so messed up that today few countries are our friend. The bureaucracy is refusing to work. There is deep polarization in society.”
Mr. Khan, who was ousted as prime minister over the weekend, demonstrated his continuing political pull on Sunday, with tens of thousands of his supporters coming out in towns across Pakistan in anger over his dismissal. No other major party has such passionate support in all corners of the nation.
Mr. Khan is expected to make his first appearance since being thrown out at a rally on Wednesday in the northwestern city of Peshawar. “I want all our people to come, as Pakistan was created as an independent, sovereign state, not as a puppet state of foreign powers,” Mr. Khan said on Twitter on Monday. “We are demanding immediate elections as that is the only way forward.”
Aides to Mr. Khan say they plan to hound the new government, making it difficult for them to govern, until they agree to hold elections. One tactic they say they are considering is resignations by lawmakers in Parliament, triggering dozens of by-elections and adding further pressure for nationwide polls. The new government has indicated they will seek fresh elections by the end of the year. That isn’t soon enough for Mr. Khan.
Mr. Sharif has seen a dramatic turnaround in his circumstances. Under Mr. Khan, he went to jail over corruption allegations, but he was never convicted. He is out on bail in that case, which he says is politically motivated. On Monday, the day he took his oath of office, he had been due to appear before a court hearing. He didn’t go.
Dozens of Mr. Khan’s opponents were jailed during his term, including the former foreign, finance and interior ministers from the party led by Mr. Sharif. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who replaced Nawaz Sharif as prime minister after he was forced out of office by the courts in 2017, also went to jail. None of the cases resulted in convictions.
Mr. Abbasi said Tuesday that the new government should disband the official anticorruption watchdog, the National Accountability Bureau, which he said was used for political purposes. Government officials say that corruption cases had made the bureaucracy less efficient because many officials avoided signing orders and doing certain aspects of their work for fear of getting caught up in corruption allegations.
While often in democracies it is the economy that determines the fate of governments, for any Pakistani prime minister, the biggest danger comes from their own army. Sooner or later, every Pakistani prime minister has wrestled with the military over the levers of power, and all have lost that tussle. Pakistan has been ruled by military dictators four times. Nowadays, the military prefers to exercise power from behind the scenes.
The elder Mr. Sharif saw all three of his terms as prime minister cut short by conflict with the army, with one in 1999 ending in a coup. He now lives in exile in London after being convicted of corruption in 2018—charges that he says were trumped up.
When it comes to the military, Shehbaz Sharif has an advantage: Unlike his brother, he has always sought a non-confrontational relationship with the army.
Mr. Khan was widely believed to have gotten assistance from the military when he was elected in 2018. The military’s withdrawal of its support for him enabled the opposition to peel away his coalition allies and vote him out of office. Like Mr. Khan, the new prime minister will find it hard to shake off the label that he was selected by the military, rather than elected.
In the protests by Mr. Khan’s supporters on Sunday, and on social media in recent days, anger has been directed not only at the new government but also, unusually, at army chief, Gen. Qamar Bajwa. On Tuesday, the hashtags #Bajwa_traitor and #BajwaSurrender were among the top trends on Twitter in Pakistan. A crackdown on those posting against the military is under way, say law-enforcement officials, including detentions.
The military denies interfering in politics. On Tuesday, the army said it is committed to upholding the constitution and rule of law.
One thorny decision facing the new administration is the appointment of a new army chief. Gen. Bajwa is due to retire in November. He could also be given an extension in office.
On the foreign policy front, relations with China and Saudi Arabia, two key allies that have provided loans to Pakistan, suffered during Mr. Khan’s rule. His government stalled Beijing’s infrastructure investment program in Pakistan, questioning the value of the projects.
Pakistan’s relations with its longtime rival, India, plunged further under Mr. Khan. Mr. Sharif and the Indian prime minister exchanged greetings on Twitter this week.
Mr. Khan also damaged ties with the U.S., as he took an increasingly anti-Western position in his rhetoric. In his final weeks in power, he accused Washington of conspiring with the opposition to bring him down. The U.S. and the opposition deny the charge. President Biden never called Mr. Khan, which he took as an affront, according to aides.
“We value our longstanding cooperation with Pakistan, and always view a prosperous and democratic Pakistan as critical to U.S. interests,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday. “That remains unchanged, regardless of who the leadership is.”
The economy is in a precarious state. The country has only enough foreign exchange reserves to cover two months of imports, widening budget and trade deficits and double-digit inflation. The International Monetary Fund put payouts on hold after Mr. Khan in February announced fuel and electricity subsidies and a tax amnesty without the consent of the lender.
After Sri Lanka, which said Tuesday it could no longer pay its foreign debts, Pakistan is the next most vulnerable developing country, according to an analysis by Renaissance Capital, an investment bank focused on emerging markets, because of the high proportion of government revenues spent on paying off debt.
But it will be tough for a short-lived government, which hopes to be re-elected in a few months, to rein in spending and impose economic hardship on the population, experts say. In his first act Monday, Mr. Sharif said he would raise the minimum wage and increase civilian and military pensions by 10%.
(Waqar Gillani in Islamabad contributed to this article.)
Write to Saeed Shah at [email protected]