The trouble facing Pakistan’s new prime minister
Imran Khan’s likely successor, Shehbaz Sharif, faces economic crisis and turbulent neighboursImran khan has been clean bowled. Pakistan’s prime minister, a former captain of the national cricket team, lost a no-confidence vote in parliament shortly after midnight on April 10th, ending his nearly four years in office. He had tried just about every trick in the book to cling to power, but was finally brought down by a combination of the opposition and the supreme court. His last day was a dramatic one. The court had earlier ruled that an attempt to block the vote was unlawful, and ordered that it go ahead as planned on April 9th. Yet for much of the day, Mr Khan’s colleagues carried on trying to obstruct it. The speaker, an ally of Mr Khan, repeatedly held back the vote and adjourned the session three times. Government ministers filibustered and opposition fury grew. As midnight approached with no sign of a ballot, the supreme court prepared to sit and rule the speaker in contempt. With pressure building on him, the speaker resigned. A former speaker presided over the vote. The government benches were deserted. When the votes were tallied, the opposition had 174—two more than the simple majority they needed. Mr Khan now returns to opposition, where he has spent most of his political career. He does not plan to remain there for long. He has called for peaceful protests after evening prayer on April 10th. How many people turn out will give a hint of how much support he retains, and how much trouble he can make for his successor.Barring any upset, the next prime minister is almost certain to be a political dynast of the sort that Mr Khan once said he would drive out of Pakistani politics. Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Mr Khan’s predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, runs the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of another former prime minister and head of the second-largest opposition group, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), has confirmed he wants Mr Sharif to have the job, for now at least.Mr Sharif, who is 70, lacks the charisma of his older brother, or indeed the crowd-pulling power of his niece, Maryam Nawaz Sharif. Instead his strength lies in a reputation as a competent administrator. The son of a wealthy industrialist, he went to university and worked in the family business before entering politics. While his brother had three terms as prime minister, Shehbaz had three terms as chief minister in the nation’s most populous province, Punjab, where his administration spent heavily on infrastructure. His first stint was cut short by a military coup in 1999, when the army ousted the elder Sharif as prime minister and both brothers temporarily went into exile. Like his brother, he has also been accused of corruption. The Sharifs say the accusations are politically motivated. He is currently on bail in a money-laundering investigation. He denies wrongdoing.If he does indeed become prime minister, his reputation for competence will be tested. Pakistan’s economy is in a mess. Inflation is a painful 13%, partly thanks to the war in Ukraine, and the rupee has been on the slide for months. A balance of payments crisis is looming.Mr Sharif will have learned from watching his brother that Pakistan’s politicians can get in trouble if they bicker with the military. The elder Sharif and his daughter have railed against the generals and their meddling, but Shehbaz has been more conciliatory. The military is said to consider him the only acceptable candidate for the premiership from his party.Pakistan’s foreign relations are fraught. The new government may need to patch up relations with Washington, which Mr Khan damaged by suggesting, without evidence, that Uncle Sam was behind the effort to push him out. America is used to being blamed for things in Pakistan, however, and the army has already made conciliatory noises. The PPP, which has got on better with America when it was in power in the past, will take a prominent role in the new government. So the damage Mr Khan did to bilateral ties will probably be short-lived.When it comes to dealing with Pakistan’s immediate neighbours, Mr Sharif may have limited say. The generals have a lock on policy towards India and Afghanistan. General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of the army staff, said on April 2nd that he wants talks with India and is ready to “move forward” over Kashmir, a disputed region. The border between India and Pakistan is quiet after the arch-rivals agreed to stop taking potshots at each other in early 2021. Afghanistan, however, is a dangerous headache. The Taliban remain international pariahs despite Pakistani attempts to persuade the West to engage with them. The Taliban’s victory last year—when they overthrew an American-backed government the moment President Joe Biden pulled American troops out of Afghanistan—has emboldened Pakistan’s own jihadists, who have carried out more terrorist attacks. Pakistan has yet to recognise the Taliban regime formally, but probably has closer ties to it than any other country. Western powers alarmed by widespread hunger and human-rights abuses in Afghanistan see Pakistan as the best intermediary for dealing with the Taliban. But contacts so far have been limited, and Western sanctions on the Taliban remain severe. Shehbaz will also have to deal with Pakistan’s “iron brother”, China. The Sharifs were instrumental in setting up the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative to build infrastructure around the world. The brothers appeared to get on well with China’s government. The initiative has slowed under Mr Khan and several key bits, such as a new railway, seem stalled. It is unclear if this is mismanagement, or if Pakistan got cold feet about the huge debts it was running up to pay for its shiny new port and power plants.Pakistan’s new leader will not have an easy ride. His coalition may be unified in its moment of triumph, but that will probably prove fleeting. Mr Sharif’s niece has for years been seen as the family’s most appealing standard-bearer, and she may not want to remain in the back seat for long. Elections are pencilled in for late 2023, but could be brought forward. Pakistan’s political drama continues. ■Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the deputy speaker of Pakistan’s parliament had resigned. Sorry.