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Pakistan’s PM Khan Faces Ouster
Denied crucial military support, premier may join a long list of failed prime ministers
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Pakistan could likely see yet another elected prime minister failing to complete his five-year term this week with the parliament scheduled to meet tomorrow (April 3) for a no-confidence vote against Imran Khan, who came to power in 2018 after a legendary career as a cricketer and arguably once the country’s most popular public figure.
However, he will likely join every single prime minister in Pakistan’s history since 1947 on the political trash heap unless he manages to return to power in a snap election. Not even those appointed by military dictators during martial law regimes have ever completed their constitutional terms.
As many as a dozen opposition political parties led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the largest party in the opposition, and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party, the second-largest, which appear to have enough votes to oust Khan. Crucially more than a dozen lawmakers from Khan’s own ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) are on the opposition’s side.
Pakistan’s economy, very much like many other third world countries such as Sri Lanka, is teetering on the verge of a collapse. The rupee has hit an all-time low against the US dollar, trading at almost 184:1. Commodity prices are skyrocketing – oil and gas prices are soaring and, in terms of foreign policy, Pakistan is completely alienated from the West partly because of Khan’s recent visit to Moscow, which coincided with Russia’s attack on Ukraine in the last week of February.
However, unlike Sri Lanka, the current political crisis is not solely an outcome of a struggling economic situation or what some government ministers have excused as an “international conspiracy” because of Khan’s so-called “independent” foreign policy. His likely demise is a more direct outcome of regime fragmentation involving the withdrawal of the support of the military establishment, which had been propping up the PTI regime since 2018 when the party won general elections.
As Khan himself confirmed in an interview, he has had “differences” with the top military brass over the appointment of the Director General of the military-backed Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s feared spy agency. While the Army leadership stressed its own autonomy in terms of making its internal appointments, Khan wanted to extend the outgoing director general, Faiz Hameed, for another year.
Faiz, who reportedly played a key role in securing Khan’s victory in the 2018 general elections by manipulating election results, had (and still has) his own ambitions to become the next army chief. His ambitions came into conflict with the existing Army Chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is reportedly interested in securing yet another extension to his position.
While the Army leadership was able to force the Khan government to make appointments of their choice (Faiz Hameed was transferred to a different position), the rupture that this conflict of interest caused proved fatal, as it allowed the military to withdraw its support from a regime that was also failing on many other fronts, especially the economy.
As the military recently confirmed, they stand “neutral” in the ongoing political crisis. This is a major shift from the same military leadership’s emphasis until a few months ago that it stood on the ‘same page’ with the civilian leadership.
The withdrawal of military support has its own political economy. On the one hand, the military has been able to steer clear of the regime it itself brought into power, and on the other, the failure of the civilian set-up will, as the expectation goes, allow the military to boost its institutional standing.
Notwithstanding the sheer incompetence of the Khan regime in maintaining even a semblance of economic stability – and the fact that Khan is likely to be removed via a no-confidence procedure duly defined in the 1973 Constitution – Khan’s name will be added to the long list of prime ministers in the history of Pakistan who failed to complete their term.
Anyone familiar with the country’s political history knows that the failure of civilian leadership – which is mostly tied to the manipulation of the political process by non-elected apparatuses of the state – translates directly into the political capital of the dominant military establishment. In fact, it is against the very instability of the civilian apparatuses that the military establishment has always projected its own institutional stability and importance as the key pillar of the Pakistan state.
Khan’s demise, therefore, serves the military establishment as much as it offers the opposition a crucial opening to capture power. The fact that the opposition – in particular, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz was unwilling, throughout 2021, to make a move against Khan to oust him was, as its various leaders said, due mainly to the support the military establishment was providing to the PTI government.
The fact that the military establishment has now withdrawn its support for a failing regime to insulate itself against any criticism and political fallout has not only led many PTI parliamentarians to support the opposition, but also allowed them to muster enough votes to challenge and possibly oust the Khan regime.
To understand the military establishment’s deep politics, consider this: when the opposition parties formed the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) in September 2020, it sought to target not just the Khan regime but also those who originally brought him into power i.e., the military establishment. Today, the PDM’s only objective is to get rid of the Khan regime and establish a coalition government.
By withdrawing its support for the failing regime and by professing its institutional “neutrality,” the military establishment thus has been able to neutralize the PDM’s challenge to its own long-term institutional interests – a success that nonetheless came at the expense of the Khan regime.
But Khan still has sizeable political support. This was evident from a rally he held in Islamabad earlier this week which was attended by thousands. Debate on social media is visibly divided between Khan’s supporters and opponents. This has led Khan to contemplate dissolving the national and provincial assemblies and calling an early election (elections are originally due to take place in late 2023), as he confirmed in his Saturday interview.
While Khan is unlikely to survive the no-confidence vote, he has already developed a populist strategy for the next elections. On one hand, he has developed a narrative of an “international” (American) conspiracy, supported by the opposition, to oust him, and on the other, he has begun to seek to expose how his differences with the military establishment caused the regime to fragment from within.
If Khan is ousted, more revelations of this sort are expected, which could even hurt the military establishment as well, causing Pakistan’s political landscape to be swamped with controversies before the next elections.