Prime Minister Imran Khan said yesterday that he would not hesitate to make more changes to his cabinet if required, a day after a major reshuffle that saw the appointment of a replacement for the finance minister and nine other ministerial switches.
The cabinet shake-up, which comes eight months after Khan took office, included the replacement of Finance Minister Asad Umar, who has been a close ally to Khan for many years, with Abdul Hafeez Sheikh in a renamed role to steer the country out of worsening economic turmoil.
Pakistan is on the brink of signing up for its 13th International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout since the late 1980s in a bid to stave off a balance of payments crisis and ease ballooning current account and fiscal deficits.
“I want to tell all my ministers that whoever is not useful for my country, I will change them and bring that minister who is useful for my country,” Khan said during a speech in the northern region of Orakzai.
Sheikh, who served as finance minister from 2010-2013 under the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) when it was in power, has been appointed as “Adviser on Finance”, but will be heading the finance ministry once again.
In Pakistan it is common for financial experts to be given the title of “adviser”, rather than federal minister, to head the finance ministry when they are not a sitting member of parliament.
Umar has been leading negotiations with the IMF but faced criticism over a worsening economic outlook on his watch, with inflation at a five-year high and the rupee currency down about 35% since December 2017.
The central bank last month cut growth estimates, forecasting the economy to expand 3.5% to 4% in the 12 months to the end of June, well short of a government target of 6.2%.
The IMF paints a gloomier picture, predicting growth of 2.9% in 2019 and 2.8% next year.
In a speech laden with cricket metaphors, Khan, who led Pakistan’s cricket team to World Cup triumph in 1992, said that such changes are part of good leadership.
“The captain has one objective, and that is to get the team to win. The prime minister also has one objective, and I have only one objective, to help my people win, to help them rise,” he said. “For this, I have the changed the batting order in my team and I will do this again in the future.”
Pakistan’s major opposition parties have termed Umar’s resignation an undeniable admission of the failure of the government’s economic policies.
The main opposition Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) has even called for the resignation of the prime minister for “plunging” the country into a severe economic crisis.
The other major opposition, the PPP, has termed Umar’s resignation only a “beginning”, saying that the process would complete after resignation of the prime minister.
The PPP says it will be wrong to say that Umar has resigned, claiming that the finance minister has been “sacked” after his failure to negotiate a bailout package with the IMF.
Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly and PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif, who is currently in London, in a statement issued by the party in Islamabad, recalled that he had warned that Pakistan’s economy was being held hostage by “one man’s egocentricity, arrogance and stubbornness”.
“Imran Khan should give up his stubbornness and arrogance to focus on the country’s economy,” Sharif advised while commenting on the situation.
He reminded Khan that he had offered him a collective crisis resolution formula in the form of Charter of Economy, which the premier could not comprehend “because of his ego”.
“Had (Prime Minister) Khan prioritised the country over his prestige to accept that offer, this disastrous crisis could have been avoided,” said the opposition leader, warning that “if Imran Khan continues to waste time feeding his ego and arrogance, the entire country will pay the most disastrous price”.
Similarly, talking informally with journalists at the Parliament House, PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari “felicitated” the nation over Umar’s resignation and expressed the hope that the situation would improve.
The PPP chairman, who had arrived in the Parliament House to preside over a meeting of the human rights committee, said that perhaps the prime minister was unhappy over Umar’s role in negotiations with the IMF, which had been going on for the past eight months.
Bhutto Zardari said that the people of Pakistan had been drowning in the “tsunami of price-hikes” since Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) assumed power in August last year.
He said that the government’s economic policy was “directionless”, and that no effort was made by the government to build consensus on economic issues.
“After eight months, the government has finally admitted the fact that its economic policies were a complete failure, and that the people were not getting any relief,” the PPP chairman pointed out.
In his reaction to the development, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) chief Senator Sirajul Haq said that from the very first day, questions were being raised on the competence of the government which had neither a vision nor a strong team to run the country.
The performance of the government till now, he said, proved that it did not know its goal.
Haq said that with the opening batsman of the government team returning to the pavilion, the whole government team was under pressure.
He said that neither the tax net had been widened nor the target of taxes achieved and there had been a fall of Rs230bn in the tax collection.
Haq said the government had not provided any relief to the people despite heavy financial assistance from friendly countries.
JI secretary general Liaqat Baloch said that Prime Minister Khan had himself introduced a concept that the team leader is responsible for the team’s failure.
Therefore, he said, in principle, Khan should accept the responsibility of his government’s failure.
PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb in a separate statement said that the actual cause of Pakistan’s economic woes was not Umar, but Prime Minister Khan.
She pledged that those responsible for this “economic terrorism” against the country would be held accountable at all cost.
Aurangzeb said that instead of “throwing Umar under the bus”, Khan should have “manned up” to take responsibility for his failure and resign.
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