The Platform

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan. (Awais khan/Shutterstock)

Politics in Pakistan have undergone a major shift in recent years. The intense pressure on the government for rising inflation, coupled with a failure of the government to manage the situation timely, has put the government in a vice. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the inflation rate in Pakistan hit an all-time high of 9% in October. Likewise, prices increased by 11% in April.

In a survey conducted by Gallup Pakistan in August, which marks the end of Imran Khan’s three years in office, only 48% of respondents showed satisfaction with the government’s performance. Whereas 45% of respondents, mostly from Punjab, termed it bad, keeping in view the decline in the economic sector.

Lately, Shehbaz Sharif, a prominent politician, criticized Imran Khan for his “Naya Pakistan,” stating, “instead of bringing change, the regime has only destroyed the country in every way. The Imran Khan government has brought humiliation to the country.”

PTI’s three-year performance

Notwithstanding all the domestic criticism Imran Khan has been subject to for his poor economic performance, he has been lauded for his foreign policy. From the Kashmir issue to Afghanistan, Imran Khan has been given relatively high marks. As the Gallup survey indicated, 58% of respondents believe his performance on foreign affairs to be good.

While proudly presenting the achievement of the past three years, the government in August vowed to make the country stand on its feet with dignity by ensuring self-sustainability. Moreover, while admonishing the opposition for spreading hopelessness, and highlighting the multiple initiatives of his government, Imran Khan said, “No leader became big with a shortcut. [Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder] was a big leader. He struggled in his life and people will always remember him for that.”

The Unbanning of the TLP

Imran Khan’s government is facing a daunting task to stay in power given his approval ratings. Yet, the decision of the government to unban Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which is considered an extremist organization, is signaling a new strategy.

After previously being banned under an anti-terrorism law, the release of TLP leader, Saad Hussain Rizvi, is not a free lunch. Pakistan was already struggling to get out from under the FATF’s “Grey List,” which has cost the country billions of dollars, unbanning the TLP could increase Pakistan’s chances of staying on the list for years to come.

Nevertheless, the TLP, which has paralyzed Pakistan with its large-scale protests in the past few months, is a powerful force to be reckoned with in Pakistani politics.

The government’s motives

Having gained much popularity for his stance on issues like blasphemy and vocal opposition of Ahmadis, the twenty-six year old Saad Hussain Rizvi could be an important figure in Pakistani politics. Decisively, if TLP unites with the PTI then it could be a game-changer for Imran Khan in 2023. In the 2018 elections, the TLP managed to secure nearly 2.2 million votes, making it the 5th largest party and a major spoiler on the political front.

“Doors never close in politics,” stated Senator Ejaz Chaudhry, during his meeting with Saad Hussain Rizvi after his release, referring to a possible political alignment between the PTI and TLP. Also, Imran Khan’s cabinet while unbanning the TLP has also allowed it to participate in mainstream politics. Hence, it shows the significance of the TLP as a possible kingmaker in 2023.

The consequences of failure

At a time when Pakistan’s peace efforts with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) went into doldrums, unbanning the TLP could increase extremism in Pakistan as the TTP has declined to extend the month-long ceasefire by accusing the government of failing to abide by the six-point agreement agreed to in October.

Due to Imran Khan’s abysmal domestic performance, the PTI needs the TLP more than ever, particularly since Saad Hussain Rizvi has also urged people to vote for the party in the upcoming elections.

Unbanning the TLP will either result in a major breakthrough in Pakistan’s politics or it will end up in more radical factions getting a free hand to roam freely. Hence, much is still left to the test of time, yet it is certain that the TLP, a religious-cum-political party, could become a kingmaker or a king breaker in 2023.

Ayesha Zafar is a columnist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. She is a a student of International Relations at National Defence University. She is having multiple academic publications including research articles and book chapters. Presently, she is working with the German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPG), Thailand as a research editor. Her areas of interest include Middle Eastern politics, the geopolitics of Central Asia, and the Indo-Pacific region.