Jailed Imran Khan Favored in Survey to Run Pakistan’s Economy

(Bloomberg) — Jailed ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan is the top pick for Pakistani finance professionals to oversee the cash-strapped economy’s recovery, according to a Bloomberg survey.

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Khan, effectively barred from contesting the Feb. 8 election, was ranked highest among 12 traders, economists and analysts from some of the nation’s biggest brokerages. Respondents cited the former cricket star’s enduring popularity as a key reason, saying he’d be able to push through market-focused reforms in the long run.

Three-time former premier Nawaz Sharif came second, with respondents mentioning his experience in government and the widespread belief that he’s backed by the country’s powerful military. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, a scion of the influential Bhutto clan, was a distant third, with some of those surveyed citing a distrust of dynastic politics.

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Khan’s popularity is the elephant in the room as almost 129 million eligible voters prepare to cast their ballots in federal and provincial elections next week. Pakistan has seen its National Assembly complete a five-year term just three times in its 76-year history, and political observers say there’s growing unhappiness with the electoral system with Khan out of the race.

On Tuesday, Khan was handed another jail sentence for his role in publicizing a classified diplomatic cable.

At the same time, Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz have been gaining support from voters since he ended four years of self-imposed exile in London. His return was widely seen as a deal with the generals. A Gallup poll carried out in November showed Sharif holds the highest approval ratings in his base in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.

An analysis by Bloomberg Economics of Pakistan’s misery index — a combination of inflation and unemployment rates — showed Sharif’s party performed better in managing the economy over the past three decades compared with rivals, including Khan.

The elections are intended to bring an end to the political volatility weighing on Pakistan since Khan’s ouster in April 2022, leading to his very public confrontation with the army that has loomed large over foreign policy and the economy. Whoever wins the polls will oversee an economy that’s grappling with low reserves and stubbornly high inflation. The country is likely to require another loan from the International Monetary Fund to stay afloat.

All 12 survey respondents said they didn’t expect Pakistan to survive without a new IMF loan. Half of them said Pakistan can survive without a bailout for six months, in a sign the economy remains fragile. A nine-month IMF program is set to end in March, and Pakistan has about $1 billion in dollar-denominated debt due in April.

Here are other findings from the survey carried out in January:

  • Poll contributers expect Pakistan’s economy to log 2.65% growth in the fiscal year starting July. The government estimates the economy will expand 2%-2.5% in the current fiscal year after contracting about 0.3% last fiscal year
  • Inflation is likely to moderate to 25.05% in fiscal year ending June. It now stands at about 30%
  • Four respondents said Pakistan can survive without an IMF loan for three months while two said nine months. None said the country can survive for more than a year without a bailout

–With assistance from Ismail Dilawar.

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