By Mohammad Mazhari

Imran Khan’s ouster represents tenuousness of Pakistan’s democratic institutions: researcher

April 13, 2022 - 18:35

TEHRAN – A research associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) in New Delhi says that Imran Khan’s ousting showed the weakness of democratic institutions in face of military-backed figures.

“Imran Khan’s shortened tenure and the crisis his ousting offers a sharp reminder of the tenuousness of its democratic institutions in face of the mightily powerful political force wielded by the military,” Mahima Duggal tells the Tehran Times.
“It is an indication, and a confirmation, of how deeply compromised the country’s politics is while powerful military leaders, like the army chief, are ultimately in control,” Duggal adds.
The Indian researcher believes that the military paved the way for Imran Khan in 2018, and now, “after Khan moved away from the priorities set forth by the military to pursue closer ties with China and challenged the military leadership over certain top-level appointments, it is the military that holds the reins and has helped choreograph his ouster.”

Following is the text of the interview

Q: Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan has been ousted from power after losing a no-confidence vote in his leadership. What are the main reasons for such a decision?

A: The main reason behind Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ousting from the leadership of Pakistan is the escalating tensions between Khan and the top-level military leaders. Reports of frictions between the political and military establishments of Pakistan caused intense turmoil and fuelled further panic and tension in the country in the weeks prior to Khan’s no-confidence vote. In fact, recent reports suggest that alongside deploying his allies to filibuster the no-confidence vote and call the opposition traitors for going against the Prime Minister, Khan also sought to dismiss Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, a highly influential and powerful figure in Pakistani politics. Although his efforts to sack Gen. Bajwa were blocked by a pre-emptive petition to the high court, this botched attempt only went to show the extent to which ties between Khan and the military had soured, especially considering the fact that in 2018, when Imran Khan assumed leadership, it was with the help of the army and intelligence establishments of the country. Ultimately, following a highly tense situation – even by the measure of Pakistan’s turbulent political history – wherein he fiercely fought to retain leadership, Khan lost a no-confidence vote in his leadership.

Q: Imran Khan claims that Washington was behind a conspiracy to remove him from power. To what extent this allegation is true?

A: As of now, there is little evidence to suggest that the effort to remove him from power is anyway a result of a U.S.-led conspiracy, despite strong allegations by Prime Minister Khan alleging this. The assertions first emerged at a rally in Islamabad on March 27, when Khan stated that he held a letter containing a threat by the U.S. directed toward his government. Thereafter, he specifically pointed to Donald Lu, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, as being a part of this alleged conspiracy. The various (and vague) factors mentioned as reasons for U.S. supposed action range from refusal to allow a U.S. base on Pakistani soil to maintaining neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine conflict – but no confirmation or verification has been provided, with Khan relying on rumors to spur support for his leadership. In other words, his intention was to tap into the simmering anti-American sentiments prevalent in the nation, whose people frequently view the U.S. as unfairly scapegoating Pakistan in its post 9/11 war on terror. Members of his political party, Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), have supported Khan’s stance – with PTI member and deputy speaker Qasim Suri even attempting to block the initial motion for a no-confidence vote earlier in April by claiming that the alleged letter showed interference by foreign forces. 

Khan could very well succeed in pushing for an earlier ballot that allows him to capitalize on the public support he has gathered and reattain office. Yet, the U.S. has bluntly and categorically and repeatedly rejected such assertions of a conspiracy to overthrow Khan’s government, saying there was “absolutely no truth” to them. While it is certainly possible that Khan’s foreign policy of pursuing a closer partnership with China and recent actions like his visit to the Kremlin on February 24 – just as the Ukraine invasion began – upset Washington, there is little real evidence to credibly suggest that the U.S. instigated the no-trust vote in Khan’s leadership. By all accounts, Imran Khan’s ousting is more a result of cracks between his administration and the country’s military establishment, and one reason for these gaps could be Khan’s pivot away from the U.S.

Q: Apparently the Pakistani army supports close ties with America rather than Russia. Given the army’s long role in Pakistani politics, do you see any attempt by the army to remove Imran Khan?

A: Interestingly enough, Pakistani army chief, Gen. Bajwa, has given several statements in support of expanded relations with the U.S. – in addition to those with China – by building on their “long and excellent” history of strategic ties and America’s status as Pakistan’s largest export market. In the same vein, a day before the no-confidence vote, Gen. Bajwa also asserted that the Ukraine invasion was a “huge tragedy” that must be “stopped immediately”. This came in stark contrast to statements by Prime Minister Khan which depicted neutrality and his efforts to carefully avoid siding with either camp. Khan’s policy came as part of the tone his government had adopted over the past four years that saw Pakistan move closer toward China and further away from the U.S. For many, Pakistan’s guarded stance was unexpected considering it shared considerably strong trade ties with Ukraine and has only looked towards a new improved era of bilateral ties with Russia since 2014. However, in view of regional security and a focus on Afghanistan, building better relations with Russia as well as China, both key players in Afghanistan, has become not only prudent but also critical for Islamabad. Although this clash of positions may have been a spark prompting the Pakistani military establishment to move to remove Khan from office, it was only a symptom of a steadily heightening rift between the political and military institutions.

Q What will be the future of government in Pakistan after Imran Khan? 

A: Shehbaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the rainbow coalition of opposition parties, was elected prime minister two days after Imran Khan’s ouster, via a parliamentary vote that was widely boycotted by over 100 lawmakers of PTI. Notably, Sharif was the only contender for the post after PTI, and its candidate Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the former foreign minister of Pakistan, staged a protest and walked away from the vote altogether. Sharif was a three-time chief minister of the Pakistan Punjab province and is renowned for his positive administration style. As chief minister, he worked closely with Beijing to attract and implement developmental projects funded by China. He also enjoys good relations with the Pakistani military, which is likely to continue at least in the immediate future, as he looks to appease the traditionally powerful army chief and top military leaders so as to cement his political position. Accordingly, we will likely see the Pakistani military be a strong driver of the country’s foreign and security policies. Notably, after the walkout by PTI parliamentarians, Sharif is faced with a considerably smaller 174-seat assembly which comprises primarily of his supporters; this number exceeds the simple majority required to pass laws, which will make it considerably easier for Sharif to speedily implement any regulations, unchecked by an opposition that is critical to the democratic process.

At the same time, it is worth noting that through his show of strength in the days before the no-confidence motion, Imran Khan has managed to garner incredible support from the nation’s public, especially youth voters who resonated with Khan’s conspiracy theory narrative and blamed the U.S. for his removal from office. On April 10, footage showed hundreds of thousands of citizens gathered in protest of the no-confidence vote, calling any new administration a forcefully “imposed” government. Although the Pakistan general elections are only due at the end of 2023, Khan could very well succeed in pushing for an earlier ballot that allows him to capitalize on the public support he has gathered and reattain office – although any such endeavour would be highly complicated without the support of the country’s military.

Q: How do you think about the fate of Pakistani prime ministers in Pakistan’s history? 

A: Pakistan’s politics has long been dominated by a handful of powerful, influential, wealthy, and well-established political dynasties, especially the Sharif and Bhutto factions – a trend that Imran Khan vowed to break when he was elected in 2018. At the time, he had everything in his corner; not only was he a populist leader, enjoying fame as a cricket star that had hailed him a national hero, but had also proven to be a charismatic political leader with promises to bring change to forge a new Pakistan. Most importantly perhaps, he also enjoyed the favor of the support of the all-influential Pakistani military. No prime minister in the history of Pakistan has ever been able to complete their full term of five years in office; but it seemed that with his rapport with the army and public, Khan could be the first to do so, thereby ushering in a new era. Yet, post the pandemic, which left the Pakistani economy in tatters with slow growth and double-digit inflations, Khan was ousted with still another year to go.

Imran Khan’s shortened tenure and the crisis of his ousting offers a sharp reminder of the tenuousness of its democratic institutions in face of the mightily powerful political force wielded by the military. It is an indication, and a confirmation, of how deeply compromised the country’s politics is while powerful military leaders, like the army chief, are ultimately in control. It was the military that eased the way for Imran Khan in 2018, reportedly by tactics of gross coercion and intimidation of PTI’s opposition; now, after Khan moved away from the priorities set forth by the military to pursue closer ties with China and challenged the military leadership over certain top-level appointments, it is the military that holds the reins and has helped choreograph his ouster. The Pakistani military’s role in the fall of the country’s political administration is not unprecedented but has frequently occurred in history whenever a sitting prime minister lost the favor of the military. What is unique with Khan’s case is perhaps the use of constitutional mechanisms to enable a change of guard rather than outright coups. It remains to be seen whether the chaos caused by the military’s interference and Khan’s blatant and malicious violation of constitutional procedures for personal political gains will result in lasting chaos and deep damage to the country’s democracy.

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