A political potboiler in Pakistan – Deccan Herald

(The piece was published prior to Imran Khan being ousted in a no-trust vote late Saturday)
Imran Khan, who took over as the Prime Minister of Pakistan in August 2018 with a thin majority in the country’s National Assembly, made desperate attempts over the past few days to hold on to power. The opposition parties closed ranks to move a no-confidence motion against him and even secured the support of most of his allies as well as several lawmakers of his own Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). The cricketer-turned-politician seemed prepared to sacrifice all democratic and constitutional traditions just to stay on at the crease.
The main opposition parties including the Pakistan Peoples’ Party and Pakistan Muslim League (N), as well as other regional and religious parties, like Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), which came together under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) in September 2020, have consistently accused Khan and his PTI of poor governance, mismanagement of economy and politics of witch-hunt in the name of an anti-corruption drive. The opposition leaders also accused the prime minister of winning the 2018 polls with the help of the country’s security establishment. Bilawal Bhutto, leader of the PPP, since joining the assembly in 2018 has repeatedly referred to Khan as the “selected” prime minister.
Khan, since his meteoric rise in politics in 2011, promised his followers, among other things, good governance, a flourishing economy and accountability and a corruption-free polity. But he miserably failed in delivering on his promises.
Also Read | Imran Khan loses no-confidence motion, ousted as Pakistan PM
On the accountability and corruption front, in his very first speech in parliament immediately after taking over as the prime minister, Khan declared that he would hold to account each one of the old school politicians who, while in power, had looted the country and put it in debt and would also bring back home the ill-gotten wealth they had stashed abroad. Over the next three years, his government investigated, incarcerated, and prosecuted opposition leaders, but without success. In fact, it deepened the impression that it was being done to eliminate the Opposition. The feeling among various political actors grew that there was no room for reconciliation in Khan’s politics. This only helped strengthen the Opposition.
Due to a thin majority in the assembly and a minority in the Senate, his party failed to introduce new legislation and often resorted to promulgating ordinances. The economy has had to heavily depend on borrowed money. The tax base has remained narrow. The pandemic and rising world crude prices haven’t helped either. According to the World Bank, inflation has remained at about 10% in 2021. The result is growing resentment.
While the 2018 election result showed an exponential rise in Khan’s popularity, observers are of the view it could not have been possible without active extraneous support from the country’s non-civilian sectors before the general election. In the process, a large number of electable candidates managed to join Khan’s PTI.
Also Read | I would be more dangerous if forced to step down, Pakistan PM warns Opposition
Khan’s ministers have since 2018 repeatedly declared that the government and the security establishment were on the same page. Apparently, there was a good equation between the military leadership and Khan government till well into 2021, but it reportedly came on a collision course over mismanagement of the economy, but more importantly over appointments and transfers in the army and the growing suspicion of Khan being close to a certain set of high ranking officials.
The present political situation may in great part be understood within this context.
The Opposition moved a no-confidence motion after the security establishment withdrew its support for the Khan government. Once the no-confidence move was made, the government caught cold feet and repeatedly delayed voting on one pretext or the other even after it became clear that it had lost the majority in the house.
It is then that Khan generated a new narrative. While addressing a rally of his party supporters on March 27, he accused the opposition of hatching a conspiracy at the instance of a foreign power, while clearly hinting at the role of the United States. He was trying to cultivate anti-US sentiment. Later on, he called a meeting of the National Security Committee, a sub-committee of the cabinet, on March 31, in which top military leadership was also present and concern was expressed at the “undiplomatic” language used by certain “foreign officials” which they viewed as “blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan”. It was declared that such action was “unacceptable under any circumstances”.
Also Read | Imran Khan says he will not accept ‘imported government’; calls for street protests
Then came the strangest moment in Pakistan’s parliamentary history. When the resolution was about to be put to vote, the assembly speaker on a government motion held that since the no-confidence motion was part of a foreign conspiracy, therefore, it stood dismissed. It is then that the opposition parties approached the Supreme Court, which after four days of hearing and deliberation held the speaker’s ruling unconstitutional.
Khan then again went on TV to express deep disappointment at the SC’s ruling. In his speech, he visibly appeared defeated, but also adamant not to accept defeat. Even on Saturday, the day fixed for voting on no-confidence by the Supreme Court, Khan’s ministers left no stone unturned to delay voting on the no-confidence motion in the National Assembly, insisting on a debate on the allegation of a foreign conspiracy. The Speaker, who was elected on the PTI ticket, didn’t make any serious effort to hold voting till midnight. A petition was also filed before the Supreme Court by the government for a review of its verdict to hold a vote on the no-confidence resolution. The Chief Justice of Pakistan reached the supreme court shortly before midnight. So did other judges of the apex court. The court is expected to hear a contempt petition that the Supreme Court Bar Association filed as the National Assembly did not hold voting at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday as directed by the court. The diplomatic cable, which Khan cited to buttress his claim of a foreign conspiracy against his government, has been declassified by the government in a last-ditch effort to gain more time. It is likely to be shared with the Supreme Court and presented in the National Assembly.
Next general elections, which would in the normal course become due in 2023, are now likely to be held toward the end of the current year. Khan is banking on the narrative he has created in the last few weeks – that he is being ousted as a result of external conspiracy because he is fiercely independent unlike his political opponents, who are ever ready to sell the country to serve foreign interests. If the opposition parties stick together and other factors remain constant, Khan and his PTI may lose the elections. But, in the process, the country is likely to enter a long period of political uncertainty and instability.
(The writer is a lawyer and a political columnist based in Lahore, Pakistan)
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