All eyes on Pak’s apex court after Imran’s bouncer
Deputy attorney general Raja Khalid Mahmood Khan resigned over Sunday’s developments and accused the PTI-led government of abrogating the Constitution.
New Delhi: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was widely expected to lose a no-confidence vote on Sunday as the combined opposition parties had mustered the support of nearly 200 lawmakers – more than the 172 needed in the 342-member House to oust the premier — before the move was cancelled in the National Assembly. The government challenged the no-confidence motion on the ground it violates Article 5 of the Constitution, which says “Loyalty to the State is the basic duty of every citizen, as a “foreign conspiracy” was behind the move. However, Pakistani legal experts have pointed out the government’s actions were unlawful as the same article also states “Obedience to the Constitution and law is the [inviolable] obligation of every citizen”.
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Deputy attorney general Raja Khalid Mahmood Khan resigned over Sunday’s developments and accused the government of abrogating the Constitution. He even said the actions fell under Article 6 of the Constitution, which deals with treason. Farhatullah Babar, a former senator and presidential spokesperson, tweeted: “What happened in National Assembly today is fascism in name of democracy. It’s not violation of the Constitution but abrogation of it. Unacceptable.”
Experts pointed out that on the crucial issue of Pakistan’s parliamentary proceedings being immune from legal challenges, courts had repeatedly ruled that this relates only to irregularity of procedure and not a patent illegality. Some experts even went to the extent of referring to Sunday’s developments as a “civilian coup”.
The so-called “threat letter”
As the efforts by Pakistan’s combined opposition parties to present a no-confidence motion gained pace in recent weeks and even garnered the backing of some two dozen lawmakers from Prime Minister Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, the government’s defensive moves focused on a mysterious “threat letter” that the premier first brandished at a rally in Islamabad on March 27. The letter, he claimed, provided proof of an international conspiracy for the ouster of his government.
It has since emerged that the letter is a diplomatic cable sent by Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, Asad Majeed, regarding a purported conversation with a senior American state department official. On Sunday, Khan identified US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs Donald Lu as the American official. Khan and other PTI leaders have repeatedly said that the cable contends there will be no change in the strained ties between Pakistan and the US as long as the current government remains in office. PTI leaders have referred to the cable to also claim that opposition parties were colluding with a foreign power to oust Khan.
The US has rubbished these allegations but that has made little difference in Pakistan, where “lettergate” remains a live issue and is being used by Khan and the PTI to rally public opinion in favour of the prime minister. Khan has even claimed the US was angered by his decision to travel to Russia at the time when President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine.
The two Pakistani institutions to watch out for
As the constitutional crisis in Pakistan unfolds, two institutions will be expected to play a crucial role in shaping outcomes in the coming days – the Supreme Court and the Pakistan Army.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear petitions related to the non-confidence motion and the President’s decision to dissolve the National Assembly on April 4. On Sunday, Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial said no state functionary should take any unconstitutional step and that the actions of the prime minister and president will be subject to the apex court’s order.
However, insiders say the court is divided and might not go to the extent of allowing the opposition parties’ petition demanding the holding of the no-confidence vote in Parliament. The court could instead endorse the move for early elections, which would be a less controversial way to end the constitutional crisis.
In its first response on Sunday, the powerful military said it had “absolutely nothing” to do with the developments in the National Assembly. Over the past few weeks, the military has remained impartial in the face of the government’s problems, angering Khan, who went to the extent of saying last month that “only animals are neutral”.
The military played a key role in bolstering Khan’s political fortunes before the last election in 2018, and this was in line with a decision taken by the generals in Rawalpindi to keep away from the open meddling of the sort seen in the era of Gen Pervez Musharraf. However, relations between Khan and the military have been strained since last year for a variety of reasons.
Khan’s refusal to clear the appointment of a new head for the Inter-Services Intelligence – mainly because he wanted to retain Lt Gen Faiz Hameed as the chief of the spy agency – is cited by insiders as a key reason for these strains. The army’s disquiet over Khan’s excessive dependence on his wife, a “pirni” or spiritual guide, for decision-making even on strategic matters is cited as another reason.
Days after Khan began playing up the so-called “international conspiracy” against his government and defending his decision to visit Moscow, Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa on Saturday called for better relations with the US and criticised Russia’s invasion Ukraine at an event in Islamabad attended by senior military officials and diplomats. Bajwa’s remarks were seen as a reflection of the military’s differences with Khan’s government.
If the Supreme Court were to reject the deputy speaker’s decision and allow the holding of a no-trust vote, it is almost certain that Khan will be removed from the post of prime minister. This would set the stage for the formation of a government by the opposition with PML-N leader and former Punjab chief minister Shehbaz Sharif as the likely consensus prime ministerial candidate. However, such a government will have its hands full dealing with challenges ranging from security issues such as a resurgent Pakistani Taliban to a tanking economy even as it prepares the grounds for the next election sometime in 2023 or earlier.
If the Supreme Court allows the holding of elections within three months, Khan and his PTI are expected to benefit from feelings among the public that he is indeed the victim of an international conspiracy. Khan will play up this angle in a political campaign and it remains to be seen whether the opposition parties that came together to oust him will remained united for a general election.