Pakistan: extra time for Imran Khan as parliament rejects no-confidence vote

The Conversation

Pakistan’s parliament has been dissolved by its president Arif Alv, after a vote of no confidence in prime minister Imran Khan did not go ahead. Elections are likely to follow and the question of who will lead Pakistan into its 76th year remains uncertain.

High drama continues after a week of political theatrics which saw the embattled prime minister take to live television to claim a foreign plot planned to overthrow him.

While Khan may have lost his majority in the national assembly, he still retains popular support among the people. So, if fresh elections are called he may still have a chance to cling to power. But in a country where violence is never far away, continued political instability may well turn to anger on the streets. After the dissolution of parliament, security was increased around government buildings and across the capital, Islamabad.

No prime minister of Pakistan has ever completed a full term and, over the 75 years of its existence, Pakistan has failed to establish stable and effective political institutions.

To table the motion of no confidence in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, opposition parties united, believing they had garnered enough votes in the country’s national assembly to oust Khan. The military, a key player in the country’s politics – and crucial in bringing Khan to power in the first place – had appeared to cool towards him, further bolstering the opposition. The alliance cited economic mismanagement and political incompetence.

On the day that the confidence debate began in parliament, Khan addressed the nation, claiming the United States was trying to get rid of him. The opposition was working under its directive, he said. The US government has dismissed allegations of involvement.

Khan’s heroic past

Imran Khan was the nation’s cricketing hero when he came to power in 2018. But he was a political outsider. In a country where dynasty politics had been the order of play since soon after its inception, Khan vowed to tackle corruption, cronyism and nepotism and clean up politics. He also promised to build a stronger economy which is less dependent on foreign aid and intervention. His ambition was not for fame or adulation, he claimed, that was his already. Instead, he wanted to build a “naya Pakistan” (new Pakistan), with plans to alleviate poverty and create a welfare state.

Four years later, in the middle of a global economic crisis, Pakistan’s Consumer Price Index has recorded general inflation in double digits. Data from the Pakistan bureau of statistics’ monthly review shows the extent of month-on-month price rises on everyday items. In March 2022, for example, the price of chicken had increased by 33%, fruits by 15%, onions 7% and cooking oil 5%, compared with the previous month. Year-on-year inflation shows price rise of some food items in triple figures, with the cost of tomatoes up by 149%, cooking oil 48% and pulses up by 37%. In a country where a quarter of the population lives below the national poverty line, the capacity to absorb such hikes is between limited and impossible.

Years of military control

In the 75 years since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has witnessed a cycle of transitions between military and civilian rule. There have been three successful military coups: in 1958 (General Ayub Khan), in 1977 (General Zia-ul-Haq) and in 1999 (General Pervez Musharraf), creating decades of military rule and martial law.

The military remains the country’s most cohesive national institution. Since independence it has oscillated between indirect and direct political control, always maintaining significant power and providing alternative political leadership in times of crisis. Military backing also helped bring Khan to power.

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The country’s two main opposition parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) are run by Pakistan’s two key political dynasties. Many saw Shehbaz Sharif, the brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, as the next premier if the no-confidence vote went ahead.

Sharif now claims that Article 5, which was used by parliament to reject the vote, had been misinterpreted, and has called for Khan to be charged with high treason. PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, whose mother and father both served as prime minister, has also dismissed the decision yesterday, calling it unconstitutional.

Both the PPP and the PMLN see Khan’s term in office as an aberration. If Khan had sought to end dynastic rule, the very fact that Shehbaz Sharif, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Asif Zardari played a key part in setting the no-confidence vote in motion in the first place, is testimony to the endurance of the Sharif and the Bhutto-Zardari families.

Politics in Pakistan is a dangerous game. Numerous political leaders have been killed or assassinated. In 1951, the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was shot dead. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as the country’s ninth prime minister and founded the PPP, was charged with murder and executed after a state trial. His daughter Benazir, who served as Pakistan’s 11th and 13th prime minister and was the country’s first female head of state, was assassinated by the Pakistan Taliban in 2007. Imran Khan may not get to complete a full term in office but he has survived it, at least for now.

Parveen Akhtar has previously received funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and the British Academy.