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Why Pakistan's political crisis goes beyond early elections

Haroon Janjua Islamabad
April 4, 2022

The rejection of the opposition's no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan could have serious repercussions for Pakistan's democratic set-up, say experts.

A billboard with the picture of Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan is displayed outside the National Assembly in Islamabad
Will Imran Khan survive the biggest challenge of his political career?Image: Anjum Naveed/AP Photo/picture alliance

Pakistan has plunged into a constitutional crisis after the parliament's deputy speaker rejected the opposition's no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan for being a "foreign conspiracy."

On Sunday, National Assembly (lower house of parliament) lawmakers were set to vote against PM Khan, but they saw their move thwarted by the government on controversial legal grounds.

Opposition members staged protests inside the assembly and then convened their own session, in which 197 lawmakers voted in favor of the no-confidence motion.

By that time, President Arif Alvi had already dissolved the parliament on Khan's advice.

The opposition alliance, which tabled the no-confidence motion in the National Assembly on March 8, has challenged the deputy speaker's ruling in the country's Supreme Court.

Foreign conspiracy claims

The rejection of the no-confidence motion and the dissolution of parliament has thrown Pakistan's entire constitution into question. Early elections have been called, but the Supreme Court can still undo the presidential order.

At the core of the crisis is an alleged document that claimed that US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Affairs, Donald Lu, warned Pakistan envoy Asad Majeed that there could be "dire consequences" for Pakistan if Khan remained in power.

PM Imran Khan faces no-confidence vote

"It's evident now that the conspiracy has been hatched from abroad. Everyone knows it," Khan told a local news channel.

"We have handed a demarche to the American Embassy, telling them that you have interfered in [the no-confidence vote]," the premier said.

The US has categorically denied interfering in Pakistan's domestic affairs, with a State Department spokesman saying that "there is no truth to these allegations."

Analysts say Khan is trying to turn the public against the opposition by accusing the West.

Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani political analyst, says: "The premier has clearly chosen an anti-West platform for the next elections."

Khan visited Moscow last month and held a meeting with President Vladimir Putin the same day Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. Since then, Khan has been presenting himself as an "anti-West" leader to his supporters, the one who has the guts to stand up against "imperialists."

Consequences for democracy

Shehbaz Sharif of the opposition Pakistani Muslim League party has dubbed the dissolution of parliament "high treason."

"Khan has pushed the country into anarchy, and there will be consequences for blatant and brazen violation of the constitution," he told the Pakistani press. 

Political and legal experts believe the rejection of the opposition's no-confidence motion will have grave repercussions for Pakistan's democratic set-up.

'Pakistan's constitutional crisis is spiraling out of control': Shamil Shams

"The events in Pakistan marked another attempt by a Pakistani leader to short-circuit the democratic process. By escaping the no-confidence motion, Imran Khan discarded a constitutionally mandated mechanism while citing a justification — foreign conspiracy — that lacks evidence," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.

Experts also say that the National Assembly's presiding officer (speaker and his deputies) are required to be neutral as per the constitution.

"It was an unprecedented attack on democracy and the constitution by an elected government. If the acting speaker's actions are declared valid, then every future government will be allowed to use an imaginary conspiracy to stop the no-confidence vote," Osama Malik, an Islamabad-based legal expert, told DW.

Madiha Afzal, an expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan affairs at The Brookings Institution, said the government has "turned a political crisis into a constitutional crisis through unconstitutional means."

"They have subverted the rule of law in the country. It is a setback for Pakistan's democracy," she added.

Will the military intervene?

The Pakistani military has so far remained neutral, but the ongoing political crisis could imperil the country's security.

It's not clear for how long the powerful army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, will remain indifferent to the crisis. On the US front, the military chief made his position clear on Saturday.

Addressing an international security dialogue in Islamabad, General Bajwa slammed Russia's Ukraine invasion, calling it a "huge tragedy" and emphasized his country's good ties with Washington. He said Pakistan wants to be close to both China and the US.

The general's remarks were clearly at variance with Khan's anti-US stance.

Khan's supporters burn a representation of US flag outside the US consulate in Lahore
Experts says PM Khan has chosen an anti-West platform for the next electionsImage: K.M. Chaudary/AP/picture alliance

"The military's role is a wildcard. It has made clear that it was not involved in Imran Khan's decision. We also know that the army chief and prime minister have had a falling out. This suggests that at the very least, the military won't go out of its way to try to help Khan's cause if the courts decide to challenge what Khan did," Kugelman underlined.

"He also won't be able to count on any favors from the military in the lead up to possible early elections," he added.

Will Khan emerge victorious?

Although his anti-US posture has reignited his popularity, analysts say it is not a given that Khan could win snap polls.

"It's not clear at all that Khan's party can win enough seats in parliament in the next election, especially without the military's backing," Afzal said.

Analyst Kugelman is of the view that Khan has reenergized his base in recent days, but he will face "challenges within the broader electorate because of his poor performance in trying to ease economic stress, including some of the highest inflation in South Asia."

Opposition parties blame Khan for economic mismanagement and a crackdown on political opponents and civil society activists. Since Khan took the reins of the country in 2018, inflation and unemployment have increased manifold.

Legal expert Malik admits that anti-US rhetoric is a populist slogan and sells well in Pakistani politics, but Khan faces a tough challenge from opposition parties, especially from former PM Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League in the country's most-populated province, Punjab.

Khan's aides and supporters are, however, optimistic that their leader will not only survive the current constitutional crisis but will also secure a majority in the next parliament.

Pakistan's Imran Khan fights for his future

Edited by: Shamil Shams