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Pakistan’s Crisis of Legitimacy

15 Apr 2022
By Mariam Mufti
Before Russian-Pakistani talks, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall. Source: TASS

Imran Khan has been ousted as Pakistan’s prime minister. The abrupt end of Imran Khan’s government and the political machinations of the past month must be understood against the wider context of political instability in Pakistan.

In the 2018 election, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) emerged victorious after winning 32 percent of the vote in the National Assembly. A shaky coalition with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and several independent candidates enabled Imran Khan to form the government with a very slim majority of 176 seats in a 342-member Assembly. Since its meteoric rise in 2011, PTI distinguished itself from the other mainstream parties like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) by claiming that it was not led by corrupt political dynasties and that it be more transparent. Yet, stymied by its narrow majority in parliament, its antagonistic brand of politics, and unwillingness to build partisan consensus, PTI has failed to deliver on the promise of a Naya Pakistan (new Pakistan). Instead, four years later, unable to complete his five-year term, Imran Khan has been ousted from being prime minister by a vote of no-confidence.

A quick recap of events that have led to Pakistan’s current crisis of legitimacy is as follows. On 8 March, a united opposition led by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) submitted a no-confidence motion against Imran Khan citing skyrocketing inflation, a tottering economy, malgovernance, and political victimisation as reasons calling for the prime minister’s dismissal. In the three weeks that ensued, PTI’s parliamentary support began to dwindle. MQM, with its 7 legislative seats, withdrew its support from the governing coalition. Moreover, cracks within the PTI also widened as disgruntled party members openly voiced their disaffection from the party and vowed to throw their support behind the opposition.

Backed into a corner, PTI made a series of ill-advised moves to retain its parliamentary majority. Very similar to a paranoid autocrat, Imran Khan ordered members of the National Assembly from his own party to remain absent on the day of the no-confidence vote to minimise the chances of dissidents supporting the motion to oust him. He filed a petition in the courts seeking lifetime electoral bans against those who had defected. Khan went so far as to prematurely invoke Article 63A, the anti-defection clause in the constitution that disqualifies legislators if they vote against their own party on a constitutional amendment, money bill, or a no-confidence motion. While Article 63A is meant to act as a deterrent against potential floor-crossing it cannot be interpreted to disqualify a legislator prior to them casting a vote in the House.

As PTI continued to hold political rallies to shore up support amongst the masses and ramped up efforts to hold its crumbling coalition together, merely days before the no-confidence vote, Imran Khan played his trump card. He claimed that members of the opposition were conspiring with a foreign entity to oust him from office. As evidence, he furnished a letter that threatened severe consequences for Pakistan if the no-confidence motion failed. We have since learned that a cable sent by outgoing Pakistani ambassador to the United States recounted a conversation with senior level US State Department officials that led Khan to conclude that US-led regime change was afoot.

On 3 April, as the National Assembly session opened, the odds were clearly stacked against Khan. However, Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri, a PTI member, in an unprecedented move rejected the motion for a no-confidence vote and stated that Imran Khan was still the prime minister and therefore empowered to advise the president to dissolve the National Assembly. Suri arbitrarily claimed that the entire opposition was involved in a foreign conspiracy to overthrow the government. He noted that no foreign power shall be allowed to topple an elected government, and thus, the no-confidence motion was invalid. Subsequently President Arif Alvi, on advice of the prime minister dissolved the National Assembly. The Supreme Court upheld democracy by declaring these actions unconstitutional, reinstating the National Assembly, and compelling Imran Khan to face up to the no-confidence vote.

On 9 April, after much delay, 174 votes cast by the opposition led to Imran Khan’s dismissal by a vote of no-confidence. Beyond the protests and politicking of the opposition against an inept PTI government, there are three systemic factors at play to explain how Imran Khan ended up here.

First, it is no coincidence that Imran Khan had become increasingly vulnerable to criticism and attacks from the opposition as the military withdrew its support and distanced itself from Khan’s politics. Although Pakistan has been gradually transitioning to democracy since General Musharraf’s ouster in 2008, it is still very much a hybrid regime in that the military is a reserved domain of power that has tutelary control over Pakistan’s foreign policy. Over time, the rift between Imran Khan and the military widened as Khan asserted his independence in appointing the Interservice Intelligence chief last fall.  This was deemed to be a direct impingement of the military’s institutional interests. The military has also viewed Khan’s desire for a more independent foreign policy, which ostensibly has led him to cozy up with Russia and China and drift away from the United States with much disapproval. Although, the military has repeatedly asserted that it was neutral in this vote of no-confidence, its obvious displeasure with the PTI government emboldened the opposition.

Second, the misguided appointment of Usman Buzdar, an uncharismatic, lesser-known politician, as the chief minister of Punjab displayed a shocking lack of understanding of Pakistan’s federal design. Punjab is home to 56.4 percent of Pakistan’s population. Its preponderant demographic size means that it holds a majority of the seats in the National Assembly and, as such, is the key to government-formation. To hand over the fate of this crucial province to Buzdar, much to the chagrin of PTI’s own members, not only led to fissures within the party, it also exposed PTI’s Achilles heel to its coalition partners like Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) and MQM. Poor governance and festering dissatisfaction over the last three years in Punjab exposed Imran Khan’s vulnerability in the larger struggle over no-confidence. Buzdar was compelled to step down, and the Punjab Assembly has simultaneously been thrown into chaos.

Finally, PTI’s strategy to rely on so-called electable politicians to win key constituencies and undermine its rivals in 2018 also backfired. PTI accommodated heavyweight politicians with independent support bases who defected from other political parties to contest on PTI’s ticket. Sacrificing party discipline at the altar of political expediency made it difficult for Khan to hold his party together and to seek credible commitment from party legislators to maintain party discipline in exactly such a crisis of legitimacy.

As I conclude this analysis, Shahbaz Sharif of the PML-N, younger brother of ex-prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has been elected interim prime minister. He takes charge of a country on the brink of economic crisis and political turmoil and the months ahead of him will be challenging. He also has the intractable task of having to mend Pakistan’s relations with Western allies, in particular the United States, which was blamed for backing the conspiracy to oust Khan. Sharif’s every action will be scrutinised by a defiant PTI, which by resigning from its seats in the National Assembly in protest of Sharif’s election has already weakened the legislature. And second, holding together a coalition of political parties that do not share the same political and economic positions will result in compromises that could potentially hurt PML-N’s electoral fortunes in the next election.

Mariam Mufti is an associate professor in Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo, Canada.

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