Khan: Crippled economy fuels protests by former Pakistani PM Imran Khan

LAHORE: The tumultuous campaign of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s most popular politician, to regain power was prompted by an economic crisis that ordinary people say has left them unable to feed their families.
Violent clashes erupted last week as supporters protested Khan’s arrest on corruption charges, with government buildings torched, military installations damaged and at least nine people killed.
Khan’s ousting in April last year galvanized support for the former international cricket star as the shaky coalition that replaced him struggles to pull Pakistan out of the brink of default and control the spiral of inflation.
“Right now everyone is so affected by the economic crisis that they feel the need to go out into the streets,” said 27-year-old doctor Shahab Afzal.
“You can’t even afford the basics,” he told AFP at a pro-Khan protest in eastern Lahore.
Dollar reserves have fallen to just $4.4 billion, enough for just three weeks of imports, and crucial bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have stalled since November.
Food inflation soared to almost 50% in April, according to official data.
“The feeling of economic deprivation is driving Imran Khan’s anti-government movement,” said analyst Mosharraf Zaidi.
“It creates room for a hyper-growth in his support when you’re struggling to feed your kids.”
Many Pakistanis feel the pinch even when shopping for essentials such as food or gasoline.
There is an eerie calm in Islamabad’s normally bustling G-9 market.
“The whole market is deathly quiet,” said Abdul Rehman, 63, who runs a drinks stand. “I’ve never seen him look so bad.”
Inflation began to soar in 2021 and was fueled, analysts say, by a massive $10 billion post-Covid stimulus spree launched by Khan when he was prime minister.
The broad alliance of parties that joined forces to oust Khan in a no-confidence vote cited his economic mismanagement as the main reason for their intervention.
It seems to have backfired as the government struggled to control the crisis, exacerbated by the global downturn caused by the war in Ukraine, last year’s catastrophic monsoon floods and more than a decade of declining real wages for working class Pakistanis.
“Honestly, if you take inflationary pressures out of the equation, the public aspect of Khan’s threat will probably diminish as well,” said political economist Umair Javed.
“There is a general disaffection, which is currently finding a voice through his policy of agitation.”
Islamabad is struggling to release the final tranche of a $6.5 billion bailout package from the IMF, which would temporarily ease the currency crisis. The crisis prompted the government to impose a broad import ban, which crippled many industries.
During the negotiations, the IMF forced the current government to cut the popular, but unsustainable subsidies that cushioned the cost of living crisis.
Decades of mismanagement saw Pakistan negotiate 23 agreements with the IMF, most of which remained unfinished.
Islamabad, however, lost a key bargaining chip with the end of the US occupation of Afghanistan in 2021, when Pakistan was a key regional ally.
“Unlike in the past, its major creditors are unwilling to bail out the country instead of geopolitical concessions,” Uzair Younus told the US-based Atlantic Council.
With elections due no later than October, the current government is to blame for decades of mismanagement and a confluence of contemporary shocks, while Khan says only he can rebuild.
“The system leaves behind tens of millions of people,” said economic analyst Khurram Husain. “It’s a long-term structural problem that has been running in the background for years.”
“Then a very charismatic guy comes along…and tells them the whole system is broken and we need a new system.”
In Lahore, seller Adeel Abbas is a Pakistani who joined Khan’s land for a second term.
“I will not see Pakistan prosperous in my lifetime,” the 18-year-old said. “But Khan will start.”
However, not everyone is in favor of Khan’s protests.
Back at the Islamabad market, dried fruit vendor Ahmad Shah, 32, said he could only focus on his family’s day-to-day survival.
“I don’t even know how much I earn in a month. I just manage my house, sometimes the money is more or less,” he said.
As he speaks, a young woman orders a kilo of mixed nuts. Shocked by the price, she settles for half that amount and begs him to spare her some change for the bus ticket.
“We cover our expenses with great difficulty, believe me,” Shah said.


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