The PTI government under Imran Khan has grown more and more unpopular as time has passed. The opposition in Parliament and numerous voices in civil society have called attention to rising inflation, dwindling public services, and the deteriorating situation of minorities and women in Pakistan, citing Khan’s inability to solve or even stem these issues as the reasons for their move to file the no-confidence motion, bringing a challenge to the political system.
Despite Khan’s recent announcement in the face of this opposition to lower oil and commodity prices, inflation has continued to creep upwards, quite significantly because of the ongoing crisis in Europe. Beyond oil, Russia and Ukraine are huge exporters of wheat, which makes the prospect of even higher inflation more likely; Pakistan has routinely had to rely on imported wheat to meet domestic demand.
It remains unsure as of right now whether the no-confidence motion brought against Imran Khan by leaders of the PDM (Pakistan Democratic Movement) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) will succeed. Like in all political situations in Pakistan, reports are skewed and foggy, with the PTI insisting that it has enough Members of Parliament (MPs) on their side to defeat the motion by a simple majority.
The opposition, however, claims that it has attracted enough defectors from the ruling coalition to overturn their numerical superiority and reach the 172 out of a total of 342 MPs required to pass the motion and oust Khan.
Democracy under Threat
Regardless of whether the motion succeeds or fails, it has serious ramifications for Pakistan and its political system. First, this is only the third time a no-confidence motion has been brought against a sitting Prime Minister (with the first two being against Benazir Bhutto in 1989 and Shaukat Aziz in 2006). None have succeeded till now, but Khan is straying scarily close to a defeat.
It is unclear whether the PTI defectors have returned, or intend to return, to the ruling party, or whether Khan even still has the support of powerful institutions like the military, and all this uncertainty makes it even harder for the citizens of Pakistan to ascertain what lies in store for them. Secondly, the calling for a no-confidence motion highlights a disconcerting precedent in Pakistani history; that no Prime Minister to date has ever completed their term in office.
Up until a decade ago, no government had ever completed its full term either, but the PPP (2008-2013) and the PML-N (2013-2018) governments managed to break this seeming curse on Pakistani democracy. If Imran Khan and his government are forced out of power by the coalitions of the opposition, not only will it continue the trend of interrupting a PM’s tenure but also halt the progress seen in the democratic process by the full reigns of the PPP and PML-N governments from 2008 to 2018.
Whilst these issues seem quite abstract in the face of other – more real – ones, for a country like Pakistan that is barely hanging on to democracy and freedom by the skin of its teeth, such deviations from even a semblance of democratic process can be catastrophic. A third issue that we see arising is what some have termed the “non-neutrality of those who should be neutral.”
The Speaker of the National Assembly, Asad Qaiser, is one such individual who should be neutral. It is his responsibility to convene the session within which voting on the no-confidence motion will take place, but Qaiser seems to be using any means available to him to delay the session – such as the OIC conference – thereby making it clear whose ‘side’ he is on (hint: it’s Imran Khan).
President Arif Alvi is another such individual. The President has – due to insistence by Imran Khan – forwarded a request to legal authorities for a clarification of what is meant by Article 63(A) of the Pakistani Constitution. The article in question speaks of the disqualification of MPs who have “defected” from their political party, that is, they have voted on a matter of legislation in a manner contrary to what their ‘party leader’ has explicitly indicated is the party’s choice.
The President’s call for a “clarification” of Article 63(A) means that he – and Imran Khan – are not only attempting to disqualify the votes of the two dozen or so PTI “defectors” but also disbar them from Parliament for the rest of their careers. By deeming the act of “crossing the floor” and openly siding with the opposition against their own government something morally heinous, Imran Khan is – through the President – attempting to ensure that he has a way out.
If he were to be ousted right now, he can begin to revitalise his earlier campaigns of dharnas and state that his removal was illegitimate, in contravention of – a refurbished – Article 63(A). We might even have a new case of “mujhay kyun nikala?”. Speaking of dharnas, it is also important to note some of the troubling statements and trends that we have seen in these past few days.
Imran Khan has spoken of a “massive surprise” that he has in store for the opposition, who he says have played all their cards. The nature of this surprise is unknown, but Khan might be planning to use sheer force through his supporters and police forces to intimidate those intending to vote against him. We saw the storming of the Parliament lodges by the Islamabad Police and PTI members just two weeks ago.
Allegedly, PTI is planning to fill the streets outside the Assembly with supporters on the day of the vote. The Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary during a TV interview also said that the Members of the National Assembly would on the day have to walk through these crowds to get to the chambers before voting, and after the decision is finalised would have to walk out through the same – quite likely hostile – crowds.
Such intimidation measures that risk grievous harm to the lives of MNAs and civilians are rightly causing concern, regardless of where one finds oneself on the current debate itself.
An Uncertain Future
So what lies in store for Pakistan over the coming days and weeks? If the motion is successful, Imran Khan will be ousted and the newcomers will face a host of problems, each of them potentially regime-ending, as Khan has found to his misfortune. As highlighted many times, the political system of Pakistan finds itself in a dire situation right now.
Despite the government’s surprisingly able handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that has kept Pakistan safe from the worst of it till now, the economy is in shambles with double-digit inflation, and internationally, Pakistan finds itself on – perhaps – the wrong side of public opinion. Pakistan’s explicit and hidden support for the Afghan Taliban and their new government is no secret to the world, which is extremely unpopular.
Furthermore, Khan’s trip to Russia was unlucky in timing, but he didn’t make matters better for himself when he termed it an “exciting” time to be there. His government’s refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, whilst aiming to protect Pakistan’s interests by not angering Russia, has also received international backlash. American lawmakers have begun the process of bringing up motions calling for Pakistan to be recognised as a state sponsor of terrorism, which everyone knows means a fatal lockout for Pakistan from the Western economies.
The Case with the West
If this were a case of ideals, Khan is not wrong; Pakistan and its people are not the “slaves” of the Western world to be pushed around to do their bidding. But read the room, Mr. Khan; the realm of realpolitik requires diplomacy and calculation, often at the expense of ideals. Any successor to Imran Khan would have to now contend with a state of deteriorating relations with the West, balanced against strengthening ties with a weakened Russia, which even China has seemed reluctant to support in its latest adventure.
The choice seems obvious, and a new regime would likely move immediately to mending relations with the US-led West. But the – more domestically menacing – question of inflation still remains. There is pressure from the IMF to raise energy and oil tariffs which, despite high rises, remain amongst the lowest in the region and even the world.
Khan’s announcement of the subsidies and relief contravenes the IMF’s urges, and a new regime would have to deal with disgruntled international institutions and might have to pay the price economically by losing access to credit or having to repay even more painful sums. One thing that has come out of these turbulent events is that Imran Khan found the traction to ask the Chinese to forgive roughly $4.2 billion in loans, which seems quite probable.
But Pakistan’s debt burden is still ridiculously high, and whether the next few weeks see Khan remain in power or a new government come in, the decisions that will have to be taken regarding economic affairs will be difficult, and quite probably extremely unpopular amongst the already discontented and monetarily squeezed masses. The Prime Minister’s position right now has thus rightfully been called a “crown of thorns.”
A New Leader?
In terms of domestic politics, what happens after the voting? If the motion passes, the coalition of opposition parties is too large to allow an easy and smooth transition to government by them. For starters, who would be the next Prime Minister? Filled with a motley of larger-than-life personalities like Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, Bilawal Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, Shahbaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz, would the opposition be able to choose just one to lead the country, and what would the calculus be?
They hail from different regions of the country, with different political bases and even ideologies to some extent. What concessions would have to be made by each party to the other, and what would the ramifications for ‘ordinary people’ be? The ordinary people seem to want Nawaz Sharif back. The path for Sharif to return to premiership seems to be being laid out.
Just a few days ago, the CEO of Broadsheet – the company investigating corruption allegations against Nawaz Sharif for over a decade – announced in a shocking roundabout way that they had no proof of corruption against Sharif and that the entire operation had been an elaborate witch-hunt spearheaded by NAB. The clearing of corruption allegations comes at a time that seems a little too convenient to be a coincidence, potentially rendering Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification from premiership illegitimate.
Furthermore, as Imran Khan’s popularity wanes, the approval ratings for Sharif’s tenure have skyrocketed in recent days; it looks as if the grass always does seem greener on the other side. Though most of the issues the PTI government of today are facing (like mounting debts and currency depreciation) originated in the policies of Nawaz Sharif (like obtaining international loans and pegging the dollar exchange rate), the truth is that the worst problem afflicting the masses in Pakistan is inflation, and there is no denying that inflation is much worse in Khan’s regime than it was under Sharif’s.
Energy, oil, and commodity prices were kept artificially low in Sharif’s time, an unsustainable policy for a cash-strapped country like Pakistan. The more a government borrows in order to finance and subsidise domestic consumption without boosting taxation, production and export capabilities, the deeper the hole it digs for itself until it becomes little more than a ‘rentier state’, forever doomed to keep borrowing and borrowing in order to survive.
The longer this goes on, the more difficult and precarious the measures taken to pull the country out of this debt trap will be. This economic phenomenon has been on stunning display in Pakistan, with Sharif’s government perpetually borrowing money in order to keep prices low and the population satisfied, and subsequently Khan’s government unable to balance the happiness of the population with the need to take fewer loans – which it has been forced to take.
Until Pakistan can bring up its own production capabilities and provide for its citizens, it is forced to stay in the debt trap in order to be able to feed its population and not unduly burden them. It is a deplorable situation, but the alternative is letting millions starve for intangible ideals. It is still possible, however unlikely, that the no-confidence motion does not succeed against Imran Khan.
In such a case, we are likely to see rejuvenated efforts from a vengeful Khan to ensure the political ostracisation of as many of the opposition members as he can, especially the defectors from his government. He is already attempting to have the defectors disbarred from Parliament and their votes disqualified, perhaps his only hope at defeating the no-confidence motion.
Spurred on by victory, Khan would seek to clip the wings of every opposing political actor in the country in an effort to preclude any such instance from occurring against him again, with long-lasting effects on the already damaged political system in Pakistan. Khan has also shown his willingness to cross the rubicon when he bumped heads with the COAS Qamar Bajwa on the choice of the appointee to the post of the DG ISI, one of the most important military positions in the country.
Furthermore, Bajwa’s term as COAS is due to end this November, and Khan may choose a top officer loyal to himself as the replacement, like Lt. Gen Faiz Hameed. The last time a sitting PM attempted to interfere to this extent in military matters, the military overthrew the entire government and instituted martial law for nearly a decade (see: Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf).
The no-confidence motion against Imran Khan arises at a time when the state of Pakistan is already facing numerous issues. Although Khan has gained fame and recognition in the Muslim world for making advances for the cause of Islam and its recognition worldwide (the UN recently adopted March 15th as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia), Pakistan still faces a dire situation in its foreign affairs due to its support for the current regime in Afghanistan and its neutrality in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Economically, inflation is the worst it has been in years, taking a heavy toll on an already poverty-stricken population, perhaps the greatest single reason for Imran Khan’s growing unpopularity. The unprecedented amount of dramatisation and political ‘maneuvering’ – for lack of a better word – in the buildup to the no-confidence motion reflects a movement away from democracy and towards greater populism and chaos.
It is near impossible to choose who the ideal choice to lead Pakistan is; the menu choices are so ridiculously undesirable. The uncertainty of events and relations in this entire situation makes this an extremely worrying time for the average citizen in Pakistan. No individual can tell what the coming days will bring.
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