On December 27, the young leaders of Pakistan’s political dynasties made a rare public appearance together to commemorate the 13th anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
Maryam Nawaz, daughter of Nawaz Sharif, the exiled former prime minister, and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, stood beside Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, and placed red rose petals on his mother’s grave.
The display of unity by the new generation of leaders from Pakistan’s most powerful political families was a show of strength at a time when 10 opposition parties have banded together as the Pakistan Democratic Movement to take on Imran Khan’s government.
At a rally in Malakand on Monday, Mr Bhutto Zardari, 32, alleged that Mr Khan was a “selected ruler” by the army and criticised the government’s economic strategy.
“The economies of other countries like Afghanistan and Bangladesh are doing better than Pakistan” he said. “Together we will make these puppets run away”.
Islamabad has been unable to tame prices of basic staples — the cost of chicken and potatoes rose more than 15 per cent between October to November in rural areas — and Pakistanis are losing patience with the former World Cup-winning cricket captain. The PDM has tapped into that anger by staging protests across the country.
“The inflation problem is still not addressed, it has to do with how supply chains have been disrupted but also governance issues,” said Bilal Gilani, executive director of Gallup International’s Pakistani affiliate in Islamabad. “There is significant room for political parties to benefit from the situation.”
Coronavirus initially buoyed Mr Khan. His popularity had been waning before the virus struck but polling throughout the past year showed Pakistanis approved of the way he responded to the crisis.
His populist rhetoric to spare workers from a harsh lockdown resonated with voters who believed the threat of coronavirus was exaggerated. According to the latest poll released in January, 73 per cent of Pakistanis believe the federal government is handling the pandemic well, far above the global average of 52 per cent, according to Gallup Pakistan.
However, that goodwill is fading as consumers feel the sting of high prices and face the prospect of power tariff increases. A gas shortage that began as winter set in, the result of chronic under-investment that analysts said was expected and could have been avoided, is heaping more pressure on the Khan government.
Mr Khan admitted in December that his ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) did not have enough time to do their “homework” before coming into office in 2018, saying it took three months to understand the issues.
Sensing weakness, the opposition has escalated its attacks. “It is a stand-off,” said Kamal Munir at the University of Cambridge, about Mr Khan’s government and the opposition. “Imran can take the game to the last session but I think the momentum is with the PDM.”
The PDM has been staging rallies across the country for months, defying critics who said the unlikely coalition, which includes firebrand cleric Fazlur Rehman, would fall apart.
The coalition has threatened to orchestrate a mass resignation of politicians from the country’s assemblies on January 31 to trigger a crisis and force a new election.
But Mr Bhutto’s party, which controls Sindh province, said it would contest upcoming Senate elections, a decision that has undermined the mass resignation threat.
“It’s very delicately poised right now,” said Sushant Sareen, a security analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, who added that the tussle was as much about political pressure as it was about the powerful military’s support of Mr Khan’s government.
“Could they [the military] live with a PML-N government? How do they handle someone like Maryam?” asked Mr Sareen, referring to 47-year-old Ms Nawaz, who has emerged as a political star.
“That’s not something the military establishment will find easy to take, this slip of a girl challenging the army.”
As the battle intensifies, there is growing concern about the government’s ability to stabilise the economy and rein in inflation.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both asked for Pakistan to pay back as much as $5bn in loan repayments ahead of schedule, forcing Islamabad to turn to China for more money. A $6bn IMF programme has been delayed because the government is reluctant to introduce more taxes and raise tariffs.
“With the PDM protests under way, if I was the prime minister, I would be loath to take any measures that would in turn strengthen the PDM’s view,” said Abid Hasan, a former Pakistan adviser to the World Bank.
“The economy is in really bad shape and requires surgery,” said Mr Gilani. “Muddling through for the next three years may be a win for the PTI, but it’s a loss for Pakistan.”