Imran Khan’s innings as the Pakistani Prime Minister may be coming to an end. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, one of his coalition partners, has split from the government. Khan has now lost his majority in the National Assembly, which is set to meet for a no-confidence vote on Sunday. And while all this falls perfectly in line with parliamentary norms, in the context of the country’s tumultuous political history, Khan’s premature exit would be another blow to democracy.
Not a single Pakistani prime minister has completed their five-year term in the country’s 75-year history, almost half of which has seen direct military rule. The previous two civilian governments, which ran from 2008 until Khan took over in 2018, saw their prime ministers ousted via the supreme court, which works largely in tandem with the all-powerful military. Benazir Bhutto too was shown the door via a constitutionally sanctioned mechanism backed by the military.
Since the country’s inception, the Pakistan army has been defying its constitutional boundaries and the oath it takes to not interfere in politics. It has appropriated state resources through a continuously expanding share in the budget and uses foreign military aid, most notably from the US, to reaffirm its domestic hegemony.
Now the PML-N and the PPP are spearheading the campaign against Khan, who broke their duopoly over civilian politics with his PTI party. Khan’s skewed accountability campaigns against corruption in the two parties united these supposed conservatives and left-wingers against him. But they acted only after the military turned the political tables. Those that the establishment had brought together to ensure Khan’s rise are now jumping ship. Those who themselves have been victims of military manoeuvring are now cheering on the attempts on the embattled PM.
Of course, few have been as enthusiastic about military intervention as Imran Khan was during the 2013-2018 PML-N tenure. In 2016, he explicitly welcomed a military coup. Khan’s claims to have cleared up Pakistani politics unravelled after his 2018 election triumph: he immediately stuffed his cabinet with those he had, in the past, castigated as corrupt.
And he quickly lost a significant chunk of his supporters owing to a spree of economic crises, despite his attempts to fire up the country’s conservatives with dangerous Islamist rhetoric. The Pakistani rupee entered freefall in 2018 and inflation skyrocketed. Even the relative success in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic couldn’t help Khan convince the masses. Now it looks as though the established powers in Rawalpindi, the home of the military’s HQ, may well finish him off.
The turning point came in October, when Khan resisted appointing a new spymaster, handpicked by the head of the army, before eventually succumbing. It is, after all, the custom in Pakistan that military leaders control their prime ministers. Before Khan, PML-N Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif too fell out with the military. He had attempted to wrestle control of security and foreign policy, over which the army leadership has historically maintained a complete stranglehold.
Today, Sharif’s party is rooting for the military, even as its current leader accused the army chief of toppling their former government. Even the PPP, which still relies on the name of its founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who was hanged by the military in 1979, is happy to cozy up to the generals if it protects the party’s interests in the province of Sindh, which it has traditionally ruled over.
If Khan is removed, he’ll likely be back on the streets – where he has already vowed to return – rallying against whoever replaces him. Except, instead of welcoming this military coup, he’d probably be raging at how the military suppresses civilian governments. If only he’d recognised just how insidious this relationship is before he looked set to become its latest victim. But that’s Pakistani politics for you: an endless cycle of civilian leaders brought in and shuffled out by the military.
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