Turmoil in Pakistan: What lies ahead
If the Supreme Court allows the no-trust motion, the nation may see an army-supported coalition government. Otherwise, elections will be held in July
Pakistan’s National Assembly (NA) met on April 3 to vote on a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan. His defeat was certain because defections and desertions had reduced his government to a minority. An embattled Khan had spent the previous week accusing the United States (US), at first indirectly but later directly, of conspiring with Pakistan’s Opposition for his removal from office. Khan asserted that a US official formally conveyed to the former Pakistani ambassador in Washington that if Khan survived the no-confidence process, US-Pakistan relations would remain negative. The US dismissed Khan’s claims.
When NA met, Khan resorted to a desperate and dubious parliamentary manoeuvre; the deputy speaker quashed the no-confidence motion, saying it was motivated by a foreign power, and hence violated the constitutional requirement of loyalty to the State. That enabled Khan to advise president Arif Alvi to dissolve NA. He did so. Under Pakistan’s constitution, Khan has to give way to an independent caretaker government, which will take the country to elections to be held within three months.
Khan’s extreme step surprised the country, throwing it into a constitutional and political crisis. The Supreme Court chief justice went into a huddle with some of his brother judges after NA proceedings. The Opposition also took the matter to the court, asking that the deputy speaker’s actions be annulled. The court has admitted the case. The chief justice observed that Alvi and Khan’s actions will be subject to the court’s orders, but will it be able to reach a decision soon? It will have to grapple with complex issues of constitutional law relating to judicial intervention in parliamentary proceedings and the extent of the president’s powers to dissolve NA.
Army chief General Qamar Bajwa was leading the army’s endeavours to defuse the political crisis. On May 3, however, he sought to swiftly distance the army from NA proceedings. The army spokesman said, “The army is not involved in the political process”. This is, of course, not correct for it is both a professional force and a political institution. Indeed, the present political situation can be traced to the transfer of director-general of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, Khan’s preferred general, last autumn. Khan ultimately accepted Hameed’s transfer, but Bajwa considered his defiance unacceptable interference in army affairs. He lifted the army’s protective shield over Khan. That encouraged the old established leaders — Asif Ali Zardari, the Sharifs and Maulana Fazlur Rehman — who are otherwise at odds with each other to join hands and purposefully move in for the kill.
Khan has now donned the garb of a martyr to Islam and Pakistan’s izzat (dignity). He has repeatedly told the country that it has to choose between the path of Prophet Muhammad or accept foreign manipulation through domestic traitors. Ironically, and clearly taking a dig at Pakistani politicians and generals for bending before outside powers, Khan praised India’s non-aligned and independent foreign policy on three separate occasions, including at the Islamabad Security Dialogue where foreigners were present. All this shows that he feels he has struck a chord with the people as a mard-e-momin, mard-e-mujahid — a pious and brave Muslim — who wants to redeem Pakistan, keeping it on the path of Allah.
As the crisis continues, the main consideration for the senior generals will be its impact on the appointment of the next army chief due in November when Bajwa’s extended term ends. During periods of civilian rule, the army leaves the choice to the PM, who is given a slate of eligible generals. In view of the army chief’s position in Pakistani affairs, the institution would like the transition to the next man to be a smooth affair under a PM it trusts. Certainly, as stated in these columns last October, the army would not like Khan to appoint the next army chief. Of course, some officers like Faiz Hameed may prefer Khan as PM for obvious reasons.
The next step in the Pakistani political drama will depend on the Supreme Court’s decision. It will either quash the developments of April 3 and the no-confidence motion will be restored and the vote will go ahead. Khan will be defeated and a coalition government likely led by Shehbaz Sharif will be formed. Unlike Nawaz, he has always accepted the reality of the army’s power and role in Pakistan’s national life. With vast administrative experience as Punjab’s chief minister, Shehbaz is pragmatic but the question is for how long will he be able to keep a coalition going. The country’s economic situation is dire and Khan will hit the streets. The army will attempt to keep the coalition going till the year’s end, by which time a decision on the next chief would have been made by Shehbaz.
If the court chooses not to interfere with the deputy speaker’s decision, Khan and Alvi’s actions will have to be upheld and Pakistan will have elections in July. The real electoral battle will be fought in Punjab between Khan and the Sharifs with the army helping the latter as long as Nawaz does not rock the boat. The army will discreetly do its utmost to ensure Khan’s defeat.
Meanwhile Bajwa will have to assuage the US. It does not want instability in a country with nuclear weapons, but the price it will demand is Khan in the political wilderness. That is how great powers act and Pakistan knows that.
Vivek Katju is a retired diplomat The views expressed are personal