A moment of crisis for Imran and his party

Pakistan PM faces his biggest political challenge as the Opposition moves to oust him amid economic woes and a rebellion within the PTI 

Published - March 26, 2022 10:32 pm IST

File photo of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

File photo of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Spring is the season for revival but in Pakistan, spring usually brings political intrigues. This year’s season of political intrigues came close to its climax on Friday when the National Assembly convened as the ongoing war of words touched a new low between the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf- (PTI)-led Government of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), comprised the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. Both sides liberally labelled each other as “fat rodents” that are found in the underbelly of urban spaces. It was said that only God could save Mr. Khan from being ousted as the opposition is ready to hold the final phase of discussions on a no-confidence motion, blaming the Prime Minister for mismanaging the country, economy and foreign policy. Several MP’s from the PM’s party have also come out against him.

The battle in Parliament is set to begin on March 28, Monday, when the National Assembly is set to reconvene.

The spring of intrigues in 2022 is also a bit of a payback from Pakistan’s Opposition to Mr. Khan. In February 2012, Mr. Khan had launched a movement accusing the government of Yousef Raza Gilani and Asif Ali Zardari of corruption. He had claimed that the rulers of Pakistan did not have answers to his questions about how they amassed wealth. Mr. Khan and the PTI kicked up a storm over a Swiss bank account with $60 million that allegedly belonged to Mr. Zardari.

The PTI was created by Mr. Khan in 1996 in the middle of a decade that was marked by terrorism and urban violence in South Asia. But until 2012, he remained a fringe player as bigger stars like Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto dominated the democratic landscape. Political opportunity finally emerged at the end of the rule of General Pervez Musharraf. Gen. Musharraf had reached out to the exiled former Prime Minister Sharif and Bhutto. Following a deal, Gen. Musharraf brought the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) under which the corruption cases against the two were placed beyond the ambit of investigation.

In 2007, Bhutto was assassinated by mystery killers who remained unidentified till date, but the subsequent political order was shaped by Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif . In 2012, Mr. Khan with the intervention of controversial Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, was able to question the premise behind the NRO and the post-Musharraf political consensus that suited both the leading political parties. Mr. Khan’s PTI launched the ‘Naya Pakistan’ campaign in 2013, which ultimately catapulted him to power in 2018. 

No-trust vote

The PDM and the PML-N had consistently stated that the election was rigged by the military establishment in favour of Mr. Khan as they wanted to take control through a technocratic proxy. There have long been rumours that the security establishment that is the real backroom player of Pakistani democracy tried to reach out to Mr. Sharif during his time in jail following his arrest in July 2018 but the former Prime Minister refused to play according to the military rule book.

Mr. Sharif, who is abroad now, has given the task of mobilising supporters to his feisty daughter Maryam, who has been on a cross country tour harvesting public anger over economic woes, unemployment and high inflation. Pakistan, as per the World Bank, is among the top 10 countries with the largest foreign debt stocks. Pakistan’s economy remains largely dependent on external financing as it has failed to revive its productive sectors. With disgruntlement growing, the Twitter handle of the Embassy of Pakistan in Serbia last December let out the cat when an unhappy official wondered how long officials are expected to stay quiet despite the fact that they had not been paid for three months. Islamabad later clarified that the handle was hacked. However, the tweet made it well known across the world that the Pakistani economy has reached a crisis point with even government employees going unpaid for months.

Mr. Khan had promised to rid Pakistan of corruption which had marred its experience with democracy. As his government failed to provide any stable solution to the economic problems of Pakistan, his government’s focus remained on the high voltage politics over the ‘Old Pakistan’. However, increasingly allegations suggested that Mr. Khan had turned out to be the opposite of what he had promised. He was expected to provide a rational technocratic leadership in an orthodox society, but his former wife Meham Khan claimed that he believes in black magic and loved exotic massages to ward off the evil eye. There are also rumours of corruption that allegedly involve his close relatives.

As the no-confidence motion was registered at the National Assembly on March 8 by the opposition parties, Mr. Khan tried to project it as a foreign plot. He alleged that the opposition had criticised him for denying military base to the U.S. which wanted a foothold in Pakistan after exiting Afghanistan in August 2021. Mr. Khan has been a long-term critic of the U.S.’s actions in neighbouring Afghanistan and he had criticised the handling of the U.S. by both the Musharraf and Sharif governments of the past.

His non-alignment type diplomatic style ultimately led him to Moscow where he was hosted by President Vladimir Putin on February 24, the day Russia launched the attack on Ukraine. In Russia, Mr. Khan received an assurance about possible energy collaboration between the two sides, which further irked his opponents who interpreted this as a move by an increasingly unpopular leader trying to impress his already disappointed voters. In the similar style, he praised Indian military for staying out of politics and praised India for its independent foreign policy. But these too were interpreted by the opposition as gambles from a sinking PM.

After the NA was adjourned by the Speaker on Friday, there are reports that Mr. Khan has met Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and urged the military leaders to control the political Opposition as he has decided to advance the date of election to October. It is being said Mr. Khan will make the announcement on this issue on Sunday, which is expected to be a day of high tension as both the anti-government PDM led by Maulana Rahman, and Mr. Khan’s PTI are expected to hold rallies in a bid to show strength. There remain concerns of violence breaking out between the two sides, unless, of course, PM Khan pulls out his last-minute surprise that may address the demands from the Opposition.

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