The Maulana’s March: Endgame for Imran Khan?

Image credit: The Telegraph

Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman’s march to Islamabad has created quite a hysteria in Pakistan, but the bigger question that looms is, how will the Pakistani army react?

History has a strange way of repeating itself, it was in February 2014 when Imran Khan, then president of the Tehreek-e-Insaf (TEI) had stormed the capital Islamabad demanding the resignation of the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Now Imran Khan himself is a testimony to such a condition. Pakistan is already bruised and the ordinary Pakistanis are clearly angry with the Imran Khan government for failing to deliver at the economic and social services front, but there is more than meets the eye which has contributed to the simmering discontent against Imran Khan.

Pakistan’s ailing economy 

Pakistan’s economy is in shambles, and there is very little hope of its revival anytime soon. In 2019, Pakistan finds itself facing a dire macroeconomic crisis. It is spending more on imports than it receives on exports, with its current account deficit having risen from $2.7 billion in 2015 to $18.2 billion in 2018. The major driver of this rising current account deficit is an expanding trade deficit, which is mostly due to the rising imports under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects and low exports in general. The previous government focused more on import-led growth strategy to finance large scale projects under CPEC. By the end of June 2018, the gross public debt of Pakistan reached USD $179.8 billion, showing an increase of $25.2 billion within a year. More than half of this increase in gross public debt was due to an increase in public external debt, which grew by 30.1 percent. In 2018, the depreciation of the Pakistani rupee against the U.S. dollar alone was responsible for an excessive USD $7.9 billion increase in public external debt.

Khan’s biggest blunder so far was on the economic front. The country’s currency is in a devaluation spiral and has lost 35 percent of its value in just one year. The situation got so bad that Khan had to reshuffle his ministerial cabinet and remove the finance minister he had marketed for years as the solution to Pakistan’s financial woes. As a candidate, Khan had promised to fix Pakistan’s sinking economy without taking any foreign loans. However, his government broke all previous records by borrowing $16bn in just one year – the highest ever external borrowing in any fiscal year since Pakistan’s creation in 1947. Over the last year, the country’s economic growth rate has also halved – down to 3.3 percent, the lowest in nine years. Meanwhile, the government’s trade and fiscal deficit continue to widen.

What the march means for Imran Khan

Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman, president of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Fazal (JUI-F) started the Azadi March on October 27 and entered Islamabad on October 31 for a sit-in until Imran Khan resigns. Fazal-ur-Rahman, a veteran politician who has played on both the military and civilian sides and done deals with both religious and “secular” parties, did not accept Imran Khan’s election, has named him as the cause of the country’s economic woes, and has demanded that he resign by Monday. With tens of thousands of people participating in Azadi March, he has emerged as a leader who has diehard followers who are highly disciplined and do not move without his orders – which is indeed a recipe for conflict. His supporters have shown great patience and calm as they have not resorted to any violence or subversive activities. But this calmness should not be taken as their weakness by the government as everyone knows that Maulana’s hard line followers do not hesitate even to sacrifice their lives if he orders them to move forward and attack parliament or clash with forces in the worst case scenario.

Importance  Maulana Fazlur Rahman in Pakistani politics

In his long political career, inherited from his father, Fazlur Rahman has been a supporter and facilitator of the Afghan Taliban, led large protests against the US bombing of Afghanistan after 9/11, and against Pakistan’s support to the US in the war. He also tried to broker peace deals between the Army and the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban groups in northwest Pakistan. He headed the National Assembly’s Kashmir committee at least three times, most recently between 2013 and 2018. In his youth, he was in the anti-Zia Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, but by 2004, he was helping General Pervez Musharraf legalise his coup by backing changes to the Constitution.

It could be that Fazlur is signalling to the Army that he still remains relevant to the politics of the country and its north west regions. It is telling that while he invited the PPP and PML(N) to join his protest — an offer not accepted by the two parties, although the PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto and the PML(N)’s Shehbaz Sharif made speeches at the gathering — he did not extend such an invitation to the openly anti-establishment Pashtun Tahaffuz movement, a huge opposition movement in KP.

Stance of the opposition parties

Other mainstream political parties including Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) are playing ‘hide and seek’ with the Maulana with ‘half-hearted support’. They, apparently, have shown their support for Maluana’s Azadi March but their supporters are not participating in the protests. The government finds it very difficult to defuse the situation. 

What lies ahead for Imran Khan?

The Azadi March has also shown how the nature of the Pakistani opposition has changed dramatically. Earlier, it was the PPP or PML(N) who would have the street power to organize a show like this. Now a religious party has taken the opposition stage, which is welcome from the Pakistan Army’s point of view. Irrespective of how this ends, Pakistan’s political landscape seems poised for another turn of the screw. However one thing that is amply clear is that Pakistan is in for a period of prolonged instability, and with the FATF February 2020 deadline for taking credible action against homegrown terror in Pakistan hanging like a sword, the Maulana’s March will only aggravate tensions for Imran Khan who is already battling the lost perception of humiliating India for unilaterally altering J&K status quo and a reviving an economy which is already in shambles and is very difficult to resuscitate. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.