Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has been floundering, but the speed at which it unraveled in the face of the opposition’s no confidence move on Sunday surprised even the most seasoned analysts. Not only have coalition partners of Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) joined the opposition camp, but Khan’s own party has imploded. Facing the humiliation of being voted out, the prime minister took an unprecedented step by dissolving the National Assembly, which is Pakistan’s lower house of Parliament, and calling for early elections.
Just minutes before the vote, the Speaker of the National Assembly abruptly rejected the opposition’s no confidence motion as illegal on the basis of what he described as a “foreign conspiracy,” preventing the vote that would decide whether Khan remained in office. But the National Assembly cannot be dissolved during no confidence proceedings against the prime minister, possibly making Khan’s move a blatant violation of Pakistan’s constitution.
With many of Khan’s allies joining the opposition, the prime minister lost the confidence of the house. Dissolving the National Assembly was a last-ditch attempt to escape his imminent ouster, but the move has inevitably plunged the country into a constitutional crisis. On Sunday, the Supreme Court took suo motu notice of the matter, and is undergoing hearings at the time of writing. While awaiting the court ruling, Pakistan remains in political uncertainty.
Was there a “foreign conspiracy” to oust Imran Khan?
The speaker of the National Assembly’s charge of foreign interference in Pakistan’s internal political matters—which is his reason for rejecting the no confidence motion—is built around a cable from a Pakistani diplomat, based on his conversations with senior-level U.S. State Department officials. Earlier this year, addressing a public rally in Islamabad, Khan brandished a paper saying that it contained evidence of a “foreign-funded conspiracy” to topple his government. He claimed that he was being punished for pursuing an “independent foreign policy” and not succumbing to foreign diktat. Although the contents of the letter were later made public, there is little evidence to substantiate the government’s claims that the no confidence motion was sponsored by foreign forces.
More likely, the government purposely exaggerated an informal conversation between a former Pakistani ambassador in Washington and an American diplomat to build a narrative that paints the opposition’s democratic move as a foreign conspiracy.
How did Pakistan get here?
Khan’s fall from grace marks the end of Pakistan’s experiment with a “hybrid rule” with the military actively backing the civilian administration. His journey from being a sporting hero to occupying the corridors of power is largely owed to Pakistan’s powerful military. Khan was projected by his supporters as the last best hope.
It is not surprising that Khan’s government survived for so long despite a very thin majority: he was supported by the military in the 2018 elections, and a coalition of disparate groups was built to provide his party enough parliamentary support to form the government. Even with the military’s support, his government struggled, largely due to Khan’s limited understanding of statecraft.
To Khan, it is either the misrule of previous regimes or mafias that were responsible for the country’s predicament. Khan’s frustration seems to have arisen with the collapse of his government’s ‘anti-corruption’ drive that had mainly targeted opposition leaders. He blamed both the judiciary and media for failures of governance.
Self-righteousness and the politics of religiosity did not help him deal with the worsening political crises. And as the crisis evolved, Khan’s government became increasingly authoritarian with an overreliance on the security establishment’s support and under-reliance on Parliament. Its contempt for elected institutions was evident.
A perception that the military leadership had distanced itself from the government gave a further boost to the opposition, resulting in a major shift in the country’s political scene when two main opposition parties—the PML-N and PPP—aligned against the government.
This led to a shift in loyalties that has long eroded democracy in Pakistan. Pakistan’s military is often considered the determiner of national security and foreign policy, and its role became more pronounced under the Khan government. On various occasions, the military leadership has been involved in sorting out problems with other countries arising from some impulsive decisions taken by the prime minister.
But the military’s recent decision to keep itself out of the unfolding power struggle has changed Pakistan’s traditional political dynamics. In fact, the military’s decision to refrain from politics can be interpreted as a political decision in and of itself. While the military may have pulled back from supporting the Khan government, it is not necessarily completely out of the political game.
What could happen next?
Like other populist leaders, Khan will not accept defeat easily. He called upon his supporters to take to the streets to protest the vote in Parliament. He tried to mobilize mass support by resorting to religious slogans and depicting the unfolding power struggle as a conflict between “good and evil.” This show of strength during the Parliament session was a desperate move to pressure elected lawmakers, reminiscent of how former U.S. President Donald Trump incited his supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol to prevent the peaceful transition of power after his electoral defeat in January 2021.
What we witnessed in the National Assembly on April 3 in Pakistan was a mockery of democracy. Whatever the Supreme Court rules, there is little hope of it strengthening Pakistan’s democratic political process. With persisting unresolved political issues, the role of the security establishment is likely to be strengthened.
Zahid Hussain is an award-winning author and journalist. He is the author of No-Win War: Paradox of US-Pakistan relations in Afghanistan's shadow, The Scorpion's Tail and Frontline Pakistan.
Editor's Note: On Thursday, April 7th, Pakistan's Supreme Court determined that Prime Minister Imran Khan acted unconstitutionally in ordering the speaker of the Parliament to suspend the no-confidence vote and dissolving Pakistan's National Assembly. Imran Khan was subsequently removed from office with a no-confidence majority vote of 174 legislators from the 374-member body. On April 11th, opposition leader (PML-N) Shahbaz Sharif was elected prime minister of Pakistan.