Even by the standards of Pakistan’s always volatile politics, the past ten weeks have been extremely turbulent in the country. Pakistan will have a new government on April 11, after Imran Khan was forced out by a vote of no confidence. The weeks leading up to the vote, from the motion’s submission on March 7 to the vote on April 10, were dramatic and full of intrigue. Now the country is in an economic and political crisis. Shahbaz Sharif’s new government finds itself in a state of decision-making paralysis and struggling to find its way, as the deposed prime minister leads demonstrations across the country to attack the legitimacy of the government and call new elections. At the same time, Pakistan is also gripped by an acute climate crisis. It’s not just political temperatures rising: an unprecedented heat wave has shrouded Pakistan for weeks.
The fall of Khan .’s reign
Crucial to the current crisis is understanding how Khan’s government fell. Although Khan was Pakistan’s first Prime Minister to be ousted via a vote of no confidence, he joined each of his predecessors as Prime Minister in a term of no more than five years – the length of the parliament’s election period – in office. . Pakistan’s main opposition parties had begged for Khan’s departure since he took office – calling him “selected” by the military rather than “elected” – and had formed an alliance in the fall of 2020, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). with that goal. This spring, the opposition gained traction. On the face of it, the opposition blamed the administration and economic failures under Khan. But the underlying reason their maneuvers were successful was that Khan had lost the support of the Pakistani military, which helped him rise to power.
Several factors were responsible for the rift between Khan and the military, who had previously operated on an acclaimed “same page.” The biggest was a standoff over the October 2021 transfer of the Director General of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Khan refused to sign the military-approved transfer of the Director General for weeks. The then ISI chief was a Khan loyalist, and there was speculation that Khan wanted him in the next election (or perhaps even to name him the next army chief).
When Khan lost the army’s support – even though the army said it had become neutral – the opposition was given room to make their moves. Two small parties allied with Khan in the ruling coalition switched to the opposition, enough to strip him of his wafer-thin majority in the National Assembly.
Khan came up with a conspiracy theory responsible for the collapse of his government – alleged, without evidence, the US “regime change” for pursuing an “independent foreign policy”, and claimed that “local accomplices” were responsible – claims Pakistani National Security Committee has rejected. But Khan and his allies have also alluded to the military responsible for his departure – sometimes in veiled language and sometimes fingering more directly at the “neutrals,” as they now refer to the military. In doing so, they test the limits of political confrontation with the military, only deviating when it pushes back their claims.
An intense polarization
Khan has used his expulsion to boost his supporters. Day in and day out, he calls the new government an “imported government” and the new prime minister a “crime minister” during large demonstrations across the country. Khan has used his meetings and interviews to gain media attention, claiming that the fall of his government has brought the corrupt politicians responsible for Pakistan’s problems back to power. His supporters, many of them middle-class, young and urban, and furious at what they see as Khan’s disordered, orchestrated ouster, are echoing his words on social media. With this narrative of grievances, Khan aims to undermine the legitimacy of the new government; his party has resigned from parliament and he is calling for new elections. He now plans to lead a “freedom march” to Islamabad, likely later this month, to further pressure the government for elections.
Supporters of the parties forming the government, on the other hand, see Khan’s exit as democratic and his politics as dangerous. Pakistan today has echoes of the moment after January 6 in the United States, a polarization so deep that each faction sees no validity in the arguments of the other. Khan’s supporters, in particular, are suspicious of anything the new government or military says. In recent weeks, politicians from both sides have also resorted to using religion to attack the other side, dangerous in a country where the weaponization of religion can mean a death sentence.
The new government
The new government, led by Shahbaz Sharif of the PML-N, faces enormous challenges – and not just from Khan. Shahbaz’s brother, three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was impeached in 2017 on corruption charges and now lives in London, still exercises excessive control over the party, and even the government. Shahbaz, a three-time former Prime Minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, has played second fiddle to the more charismatic Nawaz throughout his political career. Last week, the prime minister and key members of his cabinet made a sudden trip to London to discuss the direction of the new government with Nawaz. While abroad, Pakistan’s economy continued its downward spiral. The rupee continued its steep decline against the dollar; the stock market also lost value.
The government faces a major decision on whether or not to continue with the costly, unsustainable fuel subsidies that Khan’s government has instituted and which the International Monetary Fund is seeking to scrap as a condition of renewing Pakistan’s loan program. Cutting subsidies would certainly be unpopular, which worries a government with limited time in office before the next election. So far, the government has stalled and announced earlier this week, against the advice of its own finance minister, to maintain the subsidies (for the time being).
Shahbaz’s general hesitation probably reflects respect for Nawaz and his team, who may have differing views, and the fact that he commands a hulking coalition of rival parties, which will be pitted against each other in the next election. But part of the indecision has to do with the fact that the PDM’s main aim was to oust Khan; they didn’t really come up with an alternative governance plan or economic strategy before coming to power. That lack of a plan is now apparent in the light of the economic crisis in Pakistan.
the next elections
A key question contributing to the political uncertainty in Pakistan is the timing of the next election, which is due to take place in the summer of 2023. Khan has made it clear that he wants to use his current momentum for immediate elections. In the days leading up to his overthrow, he tried to strip the then opposition of a government job by dissolving the out-of-constitution parliament, a decision that the Pakistan Supreme Court (rightly) reversed. The new government, for its part, can use its time in power to turn things around in its favor, including solving outstanding corruption cases.
The question is whether Nawaz can or will return to Pakistan for the next elections. Doing so could boost the PML-N’s base, but failing to be prosecuted on his return will bolster Khan’s argument that the Sharifs have politically manipulated the corruption cases against them. The PML-N also faces significant hurdles, including an economic crisis shaped in part by exogenous factors, a power struggle in Punjab and a president who is a member of and loyal to Khan’s party. The coalition government has said this week it will not go to snap elections; Former President Asif Ali Zardari has insisted that no elections be held until parliament can implement electoral reform.
When the next elections are held, it is far from clear what the outcome will be. What matters in Pakistan’s parliamentary system is which party can get the most ‘voters’ – powerful politicians in local constituencies – on their side. Large urban gatherings may attest to Khan’s personal popularity, but do not necessarily determine how his party fares in parliamentary elections. The other factor, which has historically determined which party electable politicians will join, is where the support of the powerful military leans.
it comes down to
Which brings us to the bottom line. The foundations of the system in Pakistan, under the intense political wrangling, remain the same. What counts for political success is whether you have the support of the Pakistani military. Political parties now point directly to the military’s meddling in politics, but only when they are in opposition; if they are in government and enjoy that support, they do little to challenge it. This was true of Khan’s party when he was in power, and it is true of Sharif’s government now.
Ultimately, mounting political tension in Pakistan boils down to an opportunistic power struggle. It has left the country a political tinderbox. And in all of this, little respect is shown on both sides for the ongoing suffering of ordinary Pakistanis, who continue to pay the price for the country’s long history of political instability.