Long stories short
- The US and UK said they were assessing unconfirmed reports that Russia used chemical weapons in Mariupol, the besieged city in eastern Ukraine.
- Credit ratings agency S&P said Russia is in “selective default” on its foreign debt because it offered bond holders payment in rubles, not dollars.
- Britney Spears, freed from a court-imposed conservatorship last year, announced she is pregnant.
Return of the dynasty
Two Imran Khans are in the news today (see also Culture, below). But only one of them threatened to impose martial law on a nuclear-armed country of 220 million people.
The Khan who once captained Pakistan’s cricket team has become its first prime minister to be ousted by a no-confidence vote in parliament. He blamed his removal on a US-led conspiracy that targeted him because of his refusal to stand with Washington against Russia. The US said there’s “no truth” in Khan’s claim, but he hopes it will resonate even so: he has called for mass protests against the new government of Shehbaz Sharif, younger brother of the serial prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
The result is turmoil in South Asia’s second-biggest democracy. Three factors – apart from that nuclear arsenal – make it internationally significant:
- Russia. Khan was the first foreign leader to meet Putin after his invasion of Ukraine. Even though there’s no evidence for the idea that he was ousted with American help, Russian web trolls will seize on it to promote the theme that Biden is in the business of regime change.
- Afghanistan. Western hopes of influence on Taliban-controlled Afghanistan depend to a large extent on a good working relationship between the US and Pakistan, whose western border is as porous as ever. Sharif says he wants one. Khan was more interested in demonising Washington.
- Graft. Sharif has good management credentials from a five-year stint as chief minister of Punjab (2013-18). He also has better relations with Pakistan’s all-powerful military than his brother or Khan. But, like his brother, his record is tainted by claims of graft. He’s been arrested twice and faces pending criminal charges of laundering $30 million.
If Khan succeeds in casting Sharif as a US stooge and symbol of dynastic corruption he could return as a political force – but his position was never stable. The 2018 elections that brought him to power were mired in accusations of vote rigging and foul play. He then mismanaged the economy, depleting foreign exchange reserves, eroding the rupee’s value to an all-time low, and allowing double-digit inflation. It was this economic mismanagement that triggered the no-confidence vote.
What about the military and intelligence services? Khan came to power with their help. They viewed his conservative agenda favourably and harassed his critics. But their support waned after a falling-out over Khan’s appointment of the country’s next spy chief – and his economic mismanagement. The military didn’t want to be blamed for his failures by association and withdrew its support.
Sharif will almost certainly be able to hold onto power at least until the next election in October 2023.
But Khan left the prime minister’s office; not the National Assembly, where his brand of anti-American politics sells well. “The freedom struggle begins again today against a foreign conspiracy of regime change,” he tweeted after being ousted.
In Pakistan, no prime minister has ever completed their full term since independence from Britain in 1947.
CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE
Ukraine needs cash
Ukraine’s finance minister appealed to rich countries for immediate financial support to fill a fiscal deficit caused by the Russian invasion. “If you want us to continue fighting this war, to win this war”, Sergii Marchenko told the Financial Times, “then help us.” Government spending exceeded revenues by about $2.7 billion in March. Ukraine expects the gap to reach between $5 and $7 billion a month in April and May, and will continue to deteriorate for as long as the war continues.
CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING
MP convicted of sex assault
A jury at Southwark crown court found Conservative MP Imran Khan guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy after forcing him to drink gin at a party 15 years ago. The presiding judge will sentence Khan, who was already suspended by the Conservative Party, at a later date. Conservative MP Crispin Blunt published and then deleted a bizarre statement in support of Khan, his “friend and colleague”, claiming without evidence that Khan was the victim of a “dreadful miscarriage of justice” and that the prosecution “relied on lazy tropes about LGBT+ people” – rather than numerous witnesses, almost all of whom broke down in tears in court.
TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THINGS
Musk on Twitter
Elon Musk, the billionaire chief executive of Tesla, said he won’t be joining Twitter’s board of directors, but that he might engage with the company on a range of issues. “I believe this is for the best,” Twitter chief executive Parag Agrawal said. “We have and will always value input from our shareholders whether they are on our Board or not. Elon is our biggest shareholder and we will remain open to his input.” Musk disclosed a roughly 9 per cent stake in Twitter last week. He spent much of the weekend tweeting criticisms, suggestions, and jokes about the company.
The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT
Shanghai will start easing its severe lockdown in some areas of the city. For the past two weeks, some 25 million people have been confined to their homes. Most have had to order in food and water and wait for government drop-offs of vegetables, meat, and eggs. There are inadequate food supplies and residents are unable to access medical treatment. The government had implemented the lockdown after a surge in Omicron cases took the number of infections in the city to 15,000.
Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics
Chile’s record-breaking drought is entering its thirteenth year. The government announced a plan to ration water for Santiago, its capital of nearly six million people, supplied by two rivers that are running low. The plan involves public warnings about water scarcity, restricting water pressure, and rotating water cuts of up to 24 hours for about 1.7 million customers. Chile’s water availability has dropped by 10 per cent to 37 per cent over the last 30 years. It could drop by another 50 per cent in northern and central Chile by 2060.
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Paul Caruana Galizia Hill
With additional reporting by Giles Whittell.
Photographs Getty Images
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