Pakistan is in the throes of serious political turmoil. Almost six weeks after Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed in a Parliamentary no-confidence vote, the questions over the system’s legitimacy are only becoming tougher — with Khan announcing a Long March to Islamabad on Wednesday to demand
immediate, free, and fair elections.
So is Khan the threat to Pakistani democracy and stability, as his critics allege? Or are he and his supporters a last chance in a fight against endemic corruption and manipulation?
The April 10 no-confidence vote was the culmination of a 19-month effort to vanquish Khan, who was elected in August 2018 on a reform and anti-corruption platform. The Pakistan Democratic Movement was established by 11 political parties and led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz of disgraced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
Initially hindered by internal bickering, the PDM finally tabled its no-confidence motion on March 27, citing inflation of 12% to 15%. It demanded Khan’s resignation, dissolution of national and provincial assemblies, and immediate general elections.
The Parliamentary Speaker dismissed the motion on April 3, ruling it unconstitutional. Acting on Khan’s advice, President Arif Alvi dissolved the assemblies and called for general elections within the constitutionally-mandated 90 days. Khan would step down within 72 hours and hand power to an interim Govenrnment which would hold the ballot. The Prime Minister then invited the opposition’s Parliamentary leader for consultations towards a consensus on the structure of the interim government.
But the PDM rejected the Constitutional process. Instead, it filed a petition in the Supreme Court, which granted a hearing and allowed the senior leadership of the PML-N and the PPP to plead their case while denying the same to the Prime Minister.
On April 7, the Court — setting aside a Constitutional provision restraining the Judiciary from intervening in Parliamentary proceedings — voided the Speaker’s dismissal of the no-confidence motion and restored the national and provincial assemblies.
On April 10, a three-vote margin on the motion deposed Khan. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, a government’s removal had not occurred because of its corruption.
The End of Anti-Corruption
The decision did not bring unity. To the contrary, large rallies quickly came out in support of Imran. They called for elections and noted the composition of the new Government: Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif — whose brother and predecessor Nawaz was convicted for corruption in 2018, released on bail, and then left Pakistan for medical treatment in London — and a Cabinet with 26 of 37 ministers who were on bail over charges such as money laundering.
Indeed, on the day that he took the oath as interim Prime Minister, Shahbaz Sharif and his son Hamza were due to be indicted on charges of laundering 16 billion rupees ($206 million). Days later, Hamza became Chief Minister of Punjab Province, in a controversial vote in which armed police was present in the Lahore assembly and the opposition were absent.
Protesters also noted that Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam, convicted of fraud and out on bail, is still running political campaigns in Pakistan as she hopes to become Prime Minister. And PPP chairman Asif Ali Zardari has long been known as “Mr. 10%” for alleged corruption and is facing major money laundering charges alongside his sister Faryal Talpur, another PPP leader. His son Bilawal Bhutto is Foreign Minister in the Shahbaz Cabinet despite having no relevant qualification or experience.
Unsurprisingly, Shahbaz’s first order was to remove the official investigating the money laundering and to replace him with a PML-N loyalist. Then he and the PDM declared “electoral reforms” before any general election is held: these would roll back Khan’s legislation on electronic voting machines which would deter fraud, and remove voting rights from overseas Pakistanis, many of are expected to vote for Khan.
The Vital Decision
For decades, Pakistan’s electoral politics has been a family enterprise, in which a small feudal, landowning, and business group — interspersed with occasional military dictatorships — have dominated Pakistani legislatures and turned them into accomplices of oligarchy. Of these, the PPP and the PML-N had dominated the corridors of power since the late 1980s, using alleged corruption, patronage, violence, and the politicization of state institutions. Intertwined with business elites, they controlled commodities such as sugar and wheat, fertilizers, and pharmaceuticals.
Imran Khan’s political narrative challenged this network and threatened its billions of
dollars, parked in foreign banks and tax-free havens. His electoral rise had narrowed the PPP and PML-N’s support to Sindh and a part of Punjab respectively.
Despite the ongoing issue of inflation, the growth in GDP had risen to almost 6%, exceeding the official target of 4.8% and the estimates of the IMF, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank. The Khan Government introduced Pakistan’s largest social security program, benefiting almost half of the country’s population, with low-cost housing projects and creation of 5.5 million jobs in agriculture, industries and construction. A universal insurance scheme was launched to allow families free medical care at government and private hospitals. The Government was recognized internationally for its successful handling of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The hundreds of thousands at rallies are not just protesting Khan’s ouster and the imposition of the Sharif Cabinet. They are questioning the role of state institutions in dislodging an elected government for no apparent cause — and installing a government where there may be more than sufficient cause for its ministers to be in prison, let alone barred from public office.
The vital decision is whether these institutions will adhere to the Constitution and not just allow but also enable immediate, free, and fair elections.
If not, there may be a competition between two marches: the Long March to Islamabad v. the quick march towards the final demise of Pakistan’s political, economic, and legal system.