The political future of Pakistan

IMRAN KHAN’S innings as the Prime Minister of Pakistan came to an end when his government lost a no-confidence motion on 9 April 2022. Shehbaz Sharif was swiftly elected to replace Khan with the support of a coalition that includes the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) (JUI-F). Given that there is little that binds these parties together apart from their opposition to Khan, Pakistan is effectively in election mode. Even before the vote of no-confidence, Khan and his party, the Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), had begun mobilising their supporters through mass jalsas (rallies), press conferences, and the use of social media.

In the coming months, Pakistan will witness intense political, constitutional, and ideological contestations that will shape its political future. For instance, parties like the JUI-F and the PPP are calling for electoral reforms that will overturn bills passed by the PTI, which allowed overseas Pakistanis – amongst whom Khan has substantial support – to vote. This reflects the fact that both Khan and the PTI should by no means be written off. Indeed, just as it was becoming clear that the PTI would lose power at the centre, the party emerged as the big winner in local body elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Khan’s message of fighting corruption and political dynasts, together with his appeal to religious symbolism has won him a loyal base among the middle class, youth, and the diaspora. In his public addresses since being deposed, Khan has reiterated these issues and asserted that he is fighting for ‘haqiqi azaadi’ (true freedom) against foreign powers and their local conspirators. The popularity of Khan’s political rhetoric is linked to the emergence of a new politically significant middle class. More broadly, developments that led to the PTI government being deposed point to reconfigurations in the role of the military and the judiciary in the political sphere.

The call for haqiqi azaadi has been welcomed by some observers for seemingly challenging the hold of the military and established political elites. However, Khan’s political rhetoric coupled with his government’s attempts to prevent the no-confidence motion from taking place does not bolster Pakistan’s nascent democratic structures.

There are two aspects of his political discourse which are particularly salient in this regard. First, all the economic problems of Pakistan are linked to corruption. In line with this, politicians are presented as ‘chors’ (thieves) and the cause of all of Pakistan’s ills. Here Khan is echoing military leaders like Ayub Khan who justified military coups as the only recourse to save the country from self-serving politicians. Second, he presents himself as the only leader who can save the country and chart an independent foreign policy. This was reflected in his style of governance, which some had likened to a presidential rather than a parliamentary system. Khan has also made a conscious effort to appeal to religiously and socially conservative sections of society. Such an interlacing of populism, religion, and power has found support amongst sections of the middle class. In fact, it signals the emergence of a middle class that is aspirational, conservative, politically important, and happy to support the rise of a strong man.

It is also worth noting that Khan’s unsuccessful attempt to dissolve parliament to avoid the vote of no-confidence questions the legitimacy of parliamentary processes. The PTI government invoked Article Five of the constitution to dissolve parliament. This article iterates that loyalty to the state is the duty of every citizen. The use of this clause to dismiss parliament essentially implied that the opposition members who had supported the no-confidence motion were disloyal and conspiring against the state. These are serious allegations that question the legitimacy of parliamentary processes. Since 1958, the unilateral dissolution of parliaments by various presidents had stunted the development of the democratic process in Pakistan. Thus, the 18th Amendment of 2010, which removed this presidential power, has been hailed as strengthening democracy. The use of Article Five to call for fresh elections, which was ruled to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, warned of a return to pre-2010 politics.

The PTI had come to power in 2018 promising to build a Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan). However, its inability to deal with rising debt and soaring inflation led to disillusionment. Significantly, Khan also lost the support of the military. The military is widely believed to have played a role in ensuring that Khan and the PTI came to power in 2018. There were serious allegations levelled against it of censoring the media and facilitating alliances during the electoral hustings. Subsequently, the influence of the military over official decisions resulted in Khan’s government being described as a hybrid regime.

While the military has long played an important role in Pakistani politics, Khan’s lauding of his close working relationship with it provided a new type of discursive legitimisation of the hybrid regime model. The military was now publicly associated with specific policies. Thus, sections within the security establishment were concerned that the PTI’s inability to deal with the economic situation could potentially impact the military’s legitimacy. The growing rifts between the government and military were publicly seen in the disagreement over the appointment of the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency in 2021. The military was also concerned by Khan’s rejection of, in his words, Pakistan’s ‘humiliating relations’ with the United States, and over-reliance on China. It has long been keen on balancing Pakistan’s relations with China and the US.

The military’s decision to remain ‘neutral’ was key to the fall of the PTI government. Looking ahead, it may also be a signal that it is keen to return to a scenario where it is not publicly associated with a specific government and party. Given the economic distress that Pakistan is facing and the fact that subsequent governments will need to make difficult choices such as cutting subsidies and expanding the tax base, the military is likely to be concerned about being linked too closely with the government. Moreover, the hybrid regime experiment is largely associated with the current Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. Qamar Bajwa, and has had its critiques within the military itself. The fact that Khan had repeatedly stressed that the military and his government were on the ‘same page’ resulted in sections within the military being concerned about being linked with the PTI government’s inability to deal with the economic situation and its poor governance record.

While it remains to be seen who will replace Gen. Bajwa when retires in November 2022, the military will likely revert to a policy of publicly keeping a distance from the government. This does not, of course, mean that it will not exert political influence. On the contrary, recent statements by Gen. Bajwa on the importance of relations with the United States and the importance of its military supplies indicate its preferred direction for Pakistan’s foreign policy and strategic relations. Thus, the military is likely to allow the various parties to jostle it out in the political arena and not be actively involved in ‘match fixing’. After all, the military does not have any easy ally this time around. The PML-N, PPP, and PTI all have complicated relations with the military. While they have received patronage from the military, they also blame the army for destabilising their governments.

In contrast, there are signals that the judiciary is willing to play an active role in the political sphere. Khan became the first prime minister to lose a no-confidence motion because the Supreme Court ruled that his attempt to dissolve the parliament was unconstitutional. Notably, Chief Justice Umar Bandial had taken suo moto notice of the political developments that were unfolding. Since the vote, the Supreme Court has ruled that parliamentarians who defect will not be allowed to participate in no-confidence motions. This ruling will have a major impact on the tussle between the PTI and PML-N for the chief ministership of the politically important province of Punjab. Chief Justice Bandial has also taken suo moto notice of the “perceived interference” by the current government in ongoing investigations against them.

To be sure, the judiciary has intervened in the political space before. This includes ruling Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s actions as president to be unconstitutional and removing Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. In the past, it has also not been averse to being a part of civil-military operations like the Karachi Operation of 2013 that dramatically impacted the political landscape of Karachi by fragmenting political parties. The question to look out for in the coming months is to what extent the Supreme Court uses its authority to take suo moto notice over parliamentary affairs and the impact that such interventions could have on the development of democratic structures.

When Khan came to power in 2018, it was only the second time in Pakistan’s history that an elected government had handed the reins of power to an elected body. While he has energised a section of the middle class, it remains to be seen if his rhetoric and political actions have strengthened the credibility of the political process. It is, however, clear that the political, ideological, and constitutional debates which will play out in the coming months and the role of non-elected entities like the military and the judiciary will determine the future of the political process in Pakistan.


Iqbal Singh Sevea