What is going on in Pakistan? And why has the US been dragged into it?
Still Pakistan’s poster boy? Farooq Naeem/AFP via Getty Images
On April 3, 2022, Prime Minister – and former national sporting hero – Imran Khan dissolved Parliament to get ahead of a no-confidence vote. That vote would have seen parliamentarians decide whether or not to support Khan’s premiership and would have likely seen him ousted from power.
What happens next is in the hands of the country’s Supreme Court and, after that, the nation’s voters. The Conversation asked Pakistani American scholar Ayesha Jalal, professor of history at Tufts University, to help explain what is going on – and what could happen next.
What just happened in Pakistan?
A no-confidence vote, first submitted as a motion by Pakistan’s opposition parties on March 8, was supposed to take place. But it was delayed repeatedly as Khan tried to cling to power.
Finally on April 3, the National Assembly was supposed to vote. Instead, Khan’s newly appointed law minister made a statement to Parliament alleging a foreign conspiracy aimed at dislodging the government, accused the opposition of treason and filed a motion with the deputy speaker to abandon the no-confidence vote. Khan then dissolved the National Assembly and called for early national elections.
There is no precedent for any of this in Pakistan, and it goes against the normal democratic process. Opposition lawmakers lodged a petition challenging Khan’s gambit, and now it is up to the Supreme Court to decide.
In short, Pakistan has been thrown into a serious constitutional crisis.
What prompted the calls for a no-confidence vote?
The basic charge against Imran Khan is mismanagement, especially in Punjab – Pakistan’s second-largest province in terms of area and its most populous.
Khan came to power in 2018 promising a “new Pakistan” and an end to the corruption that has for decades been part of Pakistan’s politics. But he has failed to live up to that promise. Khan’s appointed chief minister in Punjab, Usman Buzdar, has been accused of widespread corruption, taking bribes and receiving money in return for making bureaucratic appointments. Even members of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party have broken with the prime minister over his backing of the now outgoing Punjab chief minister.
Where does the US come into this?
With his position as prime minister under threat, Khan has fallen back on a tried-and-tested tactic in Pakistani politics: Blame the United States.
Khan’s new narrative is that there is a foreign conspiracy to oust him from power. And it is America, Khan says, that is really behind the no-confidence motion filed by opposition lawmakers.
He has accused U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu of being involved in the plot to overthrow his government, suggesting that Lu had warned Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington that there would be implications if Khan survived the no-confidence vote.
The U.S. has dismissed this claim, and Khan has offered no evidence to support it. But he is tapping into a popular trope in Pakistan that the U.S. is up to something. Anti-Americanism flies in Pakistan. So Khan is playing to a well-embedded narrative in pointing a finger at Washington.
How have relations between the US and Pakistan been of late?
Khan believed that his relationship with former President Donald Trump was rather good. But relations have certainly chilled under President Joe Biden. Khan was critical of the Biden administration over the pullout of U.S. troops from neighboring Afghanistan. The Pakistani prime minister has meanwhile found it convenient to frame himself as someone long opposed to America’s drone program, which targeted purported terrorist sites in the northeast of the country but is responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths in parts of Pakistan.
That said, the Pakistani military is still overwhelmingly dependent on the U.S., and as such Pakistan’s generals will want to maintain some semblance of good relations with Washington.
But at the top level in politics it is fair to say relations with the U.S. are not good – “terrible” was the word Khan used in a 2021 interview. It hasn’t been helped by the perception held by Khan that his government has been snubbed and ignored by Biden.
Sounds like Khan has a bruised ego?
Khan is a superstar with a massive ego. You have to remember he was a superstar before he was prime minister, having been the captain of the country’s national cricket team and a global jet-setter. It’s not over the top to say that Imran Khan is a legend to many Pakistanis.
He will be hoping that this star power might serve him well in any upcoming election.
He certainly has a support base that is very loyal. But it isn’t clear whether it outweighs that of the other parties put together – and a coalition of opposition parties could gain enough seats to oust Khan in an election. Indeed, Khan has only ever governed with a very small mandate – his party did not win a majority of seats in parliament and required the support of smaller parties. And his own members have been disavowing him in light of the recent events. I also doubt many people in Pakistan are buying the conspiracy about the U.S. trying to topple him.
He will also find it difficult to win Punjab given the mismanagement that he is blamed for there. And without Punjab, you can’t run Pakistan.
So what happens next?
You never know with Pakistan’s politics – anything is possible. After all, it is very rare for governments in Pakistan to complete a full term. But no matter what the Supreme Court decides about the no-confidence vote, it does look set that Pakistan will be heading to an election in the next 90 days.
It will be a bitter, bitter election – and held in the middle of Pakistan’s hot summer. Uncertainty, politicking and potential unrest could dominate the next few months.
That doesn’t sound good. What’s the worst that could happen?
The danger is that Khan will not accept an election loss and take his fight to supporters in the streets. If a political crisis becomes a law-and-order issue, the army – never far away from Pakistani politics, and seemingly losing patience with Khan – might decide enough is enough and move in.
That said, there is little appetite among the population for a military dictatorship.