Heavy police and security presence on the streets of Pakistani capital Islamabad is a clear sign of impending political turmoil. Following a failed attempt by the opposition to unseat Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan via a no-confidence vote, the cricketer turned politician has asked President Arif Alvi to dissolve parliament.
Khan risks throwing the country into chaos, since general elections will have to be held early, within 90 days, if the decision to dissolve parliament is held up by the Supreme Court. Proposed by the two main opposition parties, the no-confidence vote was blocked by the deputy speaker of the house, a member of Khan’s party, who called the attempt illegal and abruptly ended the session. The opposition had already secured the simple majority of 172 votes in the 342-seat parliament after Khan’s small but key coalition partners and 17 of his own party, Tehreek-e-Insaf members joined the call to oust him. It is worth noting that the only two similar votes in the history of Pakistan also failed to unseat the prime minister in question: Benazir Bhutto in 1989 and Shaukat Aziz in 2006.
The tide has turned against Khan as he faces public frustration over how he has handled the economy. Higher inflation and the rising cost of living are fuelling public anger. Khan won the 2018 election on a vow to tackle corruption and lead an economic shift in favour of the middle and lower classes at the expense of the privileged and super rich. His anti-West rhetoric, especially his critique of US foreign policy in the region, also appealed to the majority of the young population.
It seems this has been changing, as London-based commentator Tanveer Bhatti told Al Ahram Weekly: “The important voting base for Imran Khan is the young population, but he has alienated them a bit as he has to work with the old guard in the cabinet whereas the young wanted him to bring in new blood and stamp out corruption and take the economy in a different direction… meanwhile others say he hasn’t created enough alliances with opposition parties. Those parties are deeply entrenched in Pakistani politics and own almost everything in Pakistan.”
Yet Khan’s diehard supporters believe his recent claim that an American conspiracy to oust him is underway. Though both Washington and opposition parties deny this, a good chunk of the population believes his rhetoric. Anti-West, especially anti-American sentiment is always high in the Islamic country, which boasts a population of over 220 million.
Such claims find support in Khan’s populist foreign policy. He has been moving fast towards economic cooperation with China and Russia. He visited Moscow the very day the Ukraine war was launched, back in February, and the warm welcome he received from President Vladimir Putin seems to have intimidated Americans. “Even Before 2018 when he came to power, Imran Khan was very clear he did not want any more American bases [in Pakistan] for the Afghanistan conflict, and that itself was a change from previous presidents,” Tanveer Bhatti said.
In fact, since Khan’s electoral victory four years ago, the two main opposition parties have sought to unseat him. Shehbaz Sharif, the leader of the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League, is hoping to replace Khan in power, and now allying himself with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the head of the traditional Pakistan People’s Party. Since the economy is in bad shape and the West angry with the government’s foreign policy, with the US no longer at ease with Islamabad, the opposition saw this as a ripe moment to topple Imran Khan.
But Khan is a fighter who won’t give up so easily. In 1992, addressing the Pakistani cricket team, he said: “Fight like cornered tigers”, and they won the World Cup against the odds. The former cricket star might be in a similar position politically now, but it is not clear if the cricket tactics of three decades ago can work in this case. After the president dissolved parliament, Khan addressed the people on TV saying: “Thank God, a conspiracy to topple the government has failed… I ask people to prepare for the next elections.”
Despite all the criticism, Imran Khan tried to take a different approach to Pakistani home politics – even when it came to the economy. As the bulk of the Pakistani population are in Punjab, where the standard of living is deteriorating due to a combination of factors, Bhatti notes that his efforts are diluted: “Imran Khan did well to bring peace to the northern areas. But the middle classes in Lahore and other cities have been disappointed with the progress and representation in Imran Khan’s government. But because they are well-educated, they will have more understanding that Covid and the IMF deal has tied the hands of the government a lot.”
Khan still has appeal, and he might have a chance to win a general election. Western analysts focus mainly on the fallout between Khan and the Pakistani military, who were thought to have supported his win in 2018 from behind the scene. In October, he refused to rescind the appointment of a new chief of Pakistan’s powerful ISI intelligence agency, which is the principal channel for relations with Washington.
Responding to the claim that the US is conspiring with the opposition to be rid of the government, General Qamar Javed Bajwa – the army’s chief of staff – stressed Pakistan’s “long and excellent strategic relationship with the US”. The military seems to have abandoned Khan earlier. “Even before the ISI chief issue, there were rumblings that Imran Khan had not managed the Punjab province. Opposition leader Shahbaz Sherif who runs the region has very close ties with the military. So there has been talk of the military moving away from Imran Khan for almost a year now,” Bhatti notes.
Some observers in the Western media suggest that elections might not even happen, and if the opposition failed in their legal battle to have parliament convene and hold a no-confidence vote, there might be a coup d’etat. That wouldn’t be so unusual for Pakistan, where the military ruled by coup for almost half of its 75-year history as an independent country.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.