South Asia Brief

News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to one-fourth of the world’s population. Delivered Thursday.

Is Pakistan’s New Government on Shaky Ground?

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party won a surprise victory in a by-election in the country’s biggest province.

Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Michael Kugelman
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
Political activists shout slogans outside a polling station during the Punjab province by-election in Lahore, Pakistan, on July 17.
Political activists shout slogans outside a polling station during the Punjab province by-election in Lahore, Pakistan, on July 17.
Political activists shout slogans outside a polling station during the Punjab province by-election in Lahore, Pakistan, on July 17. ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Pakistan’s new government suffers another setback, Sri Lanka’s Parliament appoints Ranil Wickremesinghe as president, and Bhutan announces changes to its tourism policy.

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Pakistan’s new government suffers another setback, Sri Lanka’s Parliament appoints Ranil Wickremesinghe as president, and Bhutan announces changes to its tourism policy.

If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


What’s Next for Pakistan’s New Government?

The opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won 15 of 20 seats in by-elections in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, on Sunday. The victory gives the PTI’s coalition a majority in the Punjab assembly, just three months after the party’s leader, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, lost a parliamentary no-confidence vote.

The opposition’s triumph is surprising: Punjab is the country’s biggest electoral prize and the stronghold of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the top party in the coalition that took over Pakistan’s government in April. Moreover, during Khan’s final weeks in power, he lost the support of Pakistan Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa; Bajwa’s backing helped Khan ascend to the prime ministership in 2018.

The Punjab by-elections were a referendum on both the new government’s performance and on Khan’s allegation that the current government colluded with the Pakistani military and the U.S. government to unseat him, which has been his dominant message since his ouster. (Washington has repeatedly denied this allegation.) The PTI’s win in Punjab suggests voters rejected the coalition government and sided with Khan—the worst possible outcome for government leaders in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s new government now finds itself in a precarious position. It was already on the defensive as it struggled to develop a plan to tackle soaring inflation and debt and as Khan held massive anti-government rallies. The defeat in Punjab will diminish its public mandate and galvanize the opposition. The government risks losing additional support when it soon implements austerity measures to comply with International Monetary Fund requirements for a recently secured new loan.

Khan has called on the government to step down and call early elections—Pakistan must hold a vote by October 2023—which even several of his most prominent critics have echoed. On Tuesday, the government insisted it will serve out its full term, although Pakistani reports suggest senior officials haven’t ruled out early elections if leaders reach a unanimous decision.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has strong incentives to stay the course. Quitting now would give in to the core demand of a bitter rival. Sharif’s PML-N will almost certainly fare poorly if elections take place soon, but if the prime minister holds out he has more time to win back public support.

Furthermore, Sharif will want to hold on until at least November, when Bajwa’s term as army chief ends. The army chief is one of Pakistan’s most powerful political players, and Sharif will want to make the next appointment. Khan may have lost Bajwa’s support, but he still has backing from some of the security establishment, including Faiz Hameed, a former spy chief. Sharif and his allies will want to ensure the next army chief isn’t on Khan’s side.

Finally, the next year could bring economic changes that benefit the current government, including a fall in global commodity prices and the easing of COVID-19 supply chain disruptions. If the global economy improves, the large Pakistani workforce in oil-producing Persian Gulf states would be able to send higher remittances back home.

This isn’t to say that Pakistan’s government won’t fold early. Large, sustained protests could prompt leaders to call early elections—especially if those leaders were under pressure from the powerful military. In addition, the governing coalition lacks unity. Policy challenges could tear it apart. It would also be more likely to step down early if it succeeded in ongoing efforts to secure legislative amendments that better protect its leaders from corruption charges.

For now, expect Sharif to address Pakistan’s economic crisis by pursuing the new IMF loan and seeking additional aid from key partners such as China and Saudi Arabia. These measures don’t address the underlying causes of Pakistan’s economic stress, namely, uncompetitive exports, debt-ridden public sector companies, and insufficient taxation. Although the government has signaled its willingness to address these problems, it lacks the political capital—and the time—to do so.

Instead, Sharif will likely hope, perhaps naively, that familiar Band-Aid policies bring some economic relief and political breathing room to better position his party for elections whenever they happen.


What We’re Following

Sri Lanka’s new president. Sri Lanka’s Parliament elected Ranil Wickremesinghe as the country’s next president on Wednesday. He replaces Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who resigned earlier this month amid escalating anti-government protests. During Rajapaksa’s final days as president, he appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister and then as acting president. Wickremesinghe, who has served Sri Lanka as prime minister six times, will finish out Rajapaksa’s presidential term, which ends in 2024.

The good news is that Sri Lanka used a constitutionally mandated process to pursue a peaceful transition of power during an unstable political moment. The bad news is that Wickremesinghe isn’t a popular choice. Most anti-government protesters have called for a leader with no connections to the Rajapaksa family. Unsurprisingly, people took to the streets soon after news of the appointment broke.

With the new president in place, Colombo will now prioritize negotiations with the IMF on a badly needed new aid package. Wickremesinghe has ample policy experience and will be a seasoned negotiator. But even if he inks a deal with the IMF, the Sri Lankan public won’t take well to austerity measures implemented by an unpopular president. Until there are national elections, political instability is unlikely to ease.

Tourists walk in the Phobjikha Valley in Wangdue Phodrang province, Bhutan, on Dec. 7, 2019.
Tourists walk in the Phobjikha Valley in Wangdue Phodrang province, Bhutan, on Dec. 7, 2019.

Tourists walk in the Phobjikha Valley in Wangdue Phodrang province, Bhutan, on Dec. 7, 2019. LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images

Bhutan overhauls tourism policy. Bhutan will soon make major changes to its tourism system, which has been highly regulated for decades. Visitors paid for package deals that included a mandatory tour guide, and itineraries were largely determined by tour operators. However, in September, tourism will be liberalized—and become more expensive. Visitors will have more liberty to choose where they go, but there will also be a $200 daily fee, along with additional costs for food, accommodations, and other expenses.

The government says the new system is meant to give travelers more flexibility and access to higher-quality services and amenities that weren’t always available with the package deals. But many involved in Bhutan’s tourism industry fear the new policy and its higher costs will reduce the number of foreign visitors, hurting a tourism sector that makes up nearly 10 percent of the country’s GDP.

Another round of India-China border talks. Last Sunday, the Indian and Chinese militaries held their 16th round of negotiations since the start of a border standoff in the Ladakh region in May 2020. Like the last few rounds of this dialogue, there was no breakthrough. The two sides previously agreed to some troop disengagements, but 50,000 soldiers remain mobilized along the Line of Actual Control, the contested frontier separating India and China.

This latest setback comes on the heels of separate high-level diplomacy intended to deescalate border tensions. In March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited India, and last week he met with his Indian counterpart, S. Jaishankar, on the sidelines of a G-20 summit in Indonesia. The two have pledged to keep talking. A joint statement released on July 18 said that they “agreed to stay in close contact and maintain dialogue,” but future talks could become more tense. This week brought news that China plans to build a major new highway along the border.


Under the Radar

Last week, mobs attacked homes, shops, and a temple in a Hindu neighborhood in Sahapara, Bangladesh, after someone living there allegedly posted a Facebook message that insulted Islam. The violence was reminiscent of communal unrest in Dhaka and Comilla last October, in which seven people died after reports spread on social media that a copy of the Quran had been placed on the knee of a Hindu god ahead of a Hindu religious holiday.

According to rights groups in Bangladesh, between January 2013 and September 2021 there were nearly 3,700 attacks on the Hindu minority community, which makes up around 10 percent of the country’s population. Bangladesh’s religious violence isn’t as widespread—or as widely reported—as that in India. But its existence has significant implications for a country that presents itself as a stable and moderate Muslim-majority country.

Bangladesh’s government—a self-proclaimed champion of secularism—has carried out major crackdowns against Islamist extremists, including after an Islamic State-inspired attack on a popular Dhaka bakery in 2016. But the ruling Awami League party has also appeased religious hard-liners to broaden its political base. Dhaka will have to tread carefully in addressing this dangerous but delicate challenge.


In Memoriam

Michael Krepon, a prominent South Asia security specialist, passed away on July 16. Krepon, a co-founder of the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, was a longtime advocate for arms control in the region. Within the South Asia studies community, he was admired for his scholarship and thought leadership, as well as his kindness and compassion. Krepon was well known for his mentorship of South Asia security scholars and analysts.


Regional Voices

Analyst Aftab Ahmed Khanzada argues in the Express Tribune that Pakistan’s troubled past has made many citizens hopeless about the future. “Pakistan is emanating nothing but the horrifying wails of the broken hearts; wails that nobody can hear because they are eagerly engrossed in nation-building. But, I wonder if a nation’s future can be built on broken hearts,” Khanzada writes.

In the Print, Sanskriti Bhatnagar makes a pitch for the return of Formula 1 racing to India, where it has been absent for more than a decade. “We clearly have the infrastructure and the ability to conduct these races and do them well. So just bring it back already. It’s been long enough,” he writes.

In the Daily Star, journalist Aasha Mehreen Amin reflects on recent religious violence in Bangladesh and the narrative of “hurt religious sentiments.” “Apparently, only the majoritarian population experience hurt sentiments—minority communities have no sentiments to be hurt,” she writes.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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