The troubled path ahead for Pakistan’s new prime minister

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has inherited a depleting economy, troubling foreign relations and a polarised domestic front.

Newly elected Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif addresses a session of the National Assembly in Islamabad on April 11, 2022
Newly elected Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif addresses a session of the National Assembly in Islamabad, April 11, 2022 [File: National Assembly of Pakistan via AP]

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, the president of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), 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. Sharif 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 Khan from power but have largely opposing political outlooks otherwise.

Governing under a diverse coalition

One of the major shortfalls of the PTI 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  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 Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab.

In that regard, Prime Minister Sharif must consider prioritising what he can do 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. As the Chief Minister of Punjab, 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, 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.

Limited options on the foreign policy front

Sharif’s government 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 prime minister, he will likely focus on balancing existing ties rather than scoring any breakthroughs.

The personal rapport Sharif developed with China during his tenure as chief minister of Punjab will allow him to boost the ties between Beijing and Islamabad. 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. But 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 Pakistani politics and an alleged US conspiracy to overthrow the Khan government. The PTI will present to the public any move Sharif may make in the next year to improve relations with Washington, or New Delhi, as corroborating evidence for its foreign interference allegations. Therefore, during Sharif’s short term, foreign policy will have an outsized influence over domestic politics.

Reviving a struggling economy

The 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 condition 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.

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 PTI will do everything in its power to undermine the Sharif government 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.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.