Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan (AP, file photo)
ISLAMABAD: Internal rifts have appeared in Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) after 40 dissident lawmakers led by an estranged party leader, Jahangir Khan Tareen, formed a forward bloc to confront the ruling party over mismanagement in government.
The formation of a new faction has inflicted a deep wound on Khan and his party. The matter appears to be so grave that the PM and his associates are avoiding public comment because they fear causing further damage to the party. Ever since Imran Khan became PM he has dealt with political opponents with an iron fist to deny them space to challenge his authority. Now he finds himself in the midst of uncontrollable political turmoil in the country’s corridors of power.
Sources familiar with ongoing developments believe that the latest move by Tareen would not be possible without the support and approval of the country’s most powerful quarters.
By creating a faction within PTI, Tareen has pulled the rug from under Imran, who has a thin majority in the National and Punjab Assemblies and that too with the backing of military-sponsored coalition partners. In the 342-member National Assembly, the PTI has 156 seats (including 10 members of the Tareen group). Pakistan’s PM can be elected with a simple majority of 172 votes in the Lower House. In August 2018, Imran had secured 176 votes, four more than the required number, to become PM for the first time, with the support of allied parties allegedly backed by the military. The opposition, however, enjoys the support of 161 legislators, with major opposition party PML-N having 84 members and the strength of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) being 56.
In the Punjab Assembly, the PTI has 181 lawmakers, including 30 dissident members of the new group. It had formed government with the support of 10 members of the pro-military Pakistan Muslim League, four Independents and one member of Pakistan Rah-e-Haq party. The opposition PML-N has 166 legislators in the provincial Assembly, followed by seven of the PPP.
It appears that Khan’s federal and Punjab governments can be sent home without hindrance if Tareen’s faction joins hands with the opposition parties. The military’s approval will be crucial role in any such move.
Meanwhile, Khan’s only trump card, if things get out of control, will be to dissolve the assembles ahead of any no-confidence move against him in the federal and Punjab assemblies, paving the way for fresh polls in the country.
Observers believe that Pakistan’s security establishment, commonly known as “selectors” by critics and Khan’s political rivals, are unhappy with the government’s performance. The generals, who take a major chunk of the country’s financial pie, are concerned about the incumbent government’s mismanagement of the economy.
They are also concerned about the PM and his team’s foreign policy setbacks and governance failures at the federal and provincial levels, specifically in Punjab, the country’s most populous province which provides more than 70% of soldiers to the country’s armed forces. The military leadership, according to army sources, has been asking Khan for a long time to change his team in Punjab, specifically provincial chief minister Usman Buzdar, but the PM to date has refused to meet the demand of who his rivals say are his “selectors”.
The PTI’s mismanagement, according to defence analysts, compelled the military establishment to explore other options. Well-placed sources revealed that the army leadership has been in constant contact with the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leadership and its president, Shehbaz Sharif (a former Pakistan Punjab CM and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother), who had been released from prison last month. Along with his party stalwarts, the younger Sharif, also leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, has adopted a soft approach towards the military. Meanwhile, exiled former PM Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, Maryum Nawaz, have also toned down their anti-military rhetoric, indicating a move from the politics of antagonism to accommodation.
Sensing the political current, the Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDM), an alliance of 11 opposition parties formed on the single-point agenda of ousting the Imran-led government, has again made a serious attempt to re-weaponise the alliance. Shehbaz Sharif has taken the initiative, inviting all opposition members in parliament to lunch on Monday. The PDM’s job, observers believe, has been made easy by Tareen. The forward bloc that he has created in PTI comprised 10 lawmakers in the National Assembly and 30 in the Punjab Assembly. Tareen has also announced parliamentary leaders for his group in the federal and provincial assemblies.
Frustrated by the Tareen saga, Imran, who went to oversee construction work of a dam in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Thursday, avoided taking a single question on any political issue dominating the media right now. Journalists had thought that the PM would talk about key political issues but Khan, as well as his aide, issued verbal advisories to journalists not to ask any such question.
Tareen, Imran’s yesteryears buddy and the blue-eyed boy of the military establishment, was barred by the Pakistan Supreme Court, along with ex-PM Nawaz Sharif, from holding any public office after the “Panama Papers” scam came to light. But his behind-the-scenes political influence did not end with the top court’s order. Without holding any position in the PTI since the court’s ruling, he remained a key political figure and was instrumental in crafting strategy for Imran to come to power.
Tareen’s downfall in PTI began in April 2020 when his name was revealed by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) as one of the sugar barons allegedly involved in the 2019 sugar crisis in the country. He was named by the FIA as one of the beneficiaries of subsidies obtained by sugar industry bigwigs. The FIA is currently investigating cases related to the sugar crisis and money-laundering against Tareen and his son. Tareen maintains that all cases against him have been fabricated.