Heads of state come and go at a remarkable rate in Pakistan. In the last 75 years, Pakistan has had 31 prime ministers, none of whom have been able to complete their full term. But this time is different. On 10 April 2022, the opposition brought down a sitting government with a no-confidence motion for the first time in Pakistan’s parliamentary history. Historically unprecedented, it took the whole country by surprise.
Taimur Rahman is the Secretary-General of the Mazdoor Kisan Party (Workers’ and Peasants’ Party, MKP) and a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
To add further complexity to the situation, ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan alleged that his government was overthrown by Washington in retaliation for his trip to Moscow on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Is Imran Khan thus a twenty-first-century anti-imperialist, as some commentators claim, struggling to liberate Pakistan from neoliberal capitalist imperialism?
Some anti-imperialists in the West have been influenced by this narrative and express support for Khan. Certainly, there is no lack of historical precedent for regime change engineered by the United States. In reality, however, the situation on the ground is far more complicated.
The Rise of the Justice Party
The first and most important thing to understand about the political conjuncture in Pakistan is that Imran Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (Justice Party, PTI), is a populist, right-of-centre formation. Khan, one of Pakistan’s most famous cricket players who went on to become a major philanthropist, established the party in 1996. From the very beginning, its primary focus has been on rooting out corruption.
Since the 1970s, Pakistani politics has been split between two, in the Gramscian sense, historical blocs. The mainstream Left was led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), while the Right was headed by the Pakistan Muslim League, which later became the Pakistan Muslin League Nawaz (PMLN). The Pakistani Right has been and continues to be associated with two key narratives: support for the military establishment, and some form of Islamism. The Left, on the other hand, is associated with opposition to this very military–mullah alliance.
The rivalry between the PPP and PMLN dominated Pakistani politics from 1970 until 1998. After the Kargil military conflict with India in 1999, however, the military establishment and the PMLN had a falling out, with important consequences for Pakistani politics. Over time, the PMLN had gravitated towards the position that it was in Pakistan’s economic interests to develop peaceful trade with India, whereas the military establishment continued to perceive India as an existential threat. Then-PM Nawaz Sharif later claimed that the Kargil war was initiated by then-Chief of Army Staff General Musharraf to destabilize the peace process with India, and gave the order to withdraw Pakistani soldiers from the frontline.
Soon after the Kargil war, the military overthrew the Nawaz government and instituted martial law. General Musharraf became president and suppressed the political parties opposed to the military takeover by promising to root out corruption. Imran Khan was in General Musharraf’s camp at the time, until resigning his National Assembly seat in 2007 and joining the opposition.
The struggle against the dictatorship had exploded a year earlier in 2006 when the lawyers of Pakistan took to the streets. Most importantly, the movement caused the PMLN and the PPP to gravitate towards each other, ultimately leading to their pact, the Charter of Democracy. This charter represented an agreement between Pakistan’s two largest political parties to resist the military dictatorship. Imran Khan and his party were aligned with the right wing of Pakistani politics and supported the lawyers’ movement.
Following the ouster of Musharraf, the PPP and the PMLN came to power for one term each. While they continued to criticize and attack each other, they were united in keeping the military out of politics. With the support of the PMLN, the PPP minority government was able to pass the 18th amendment, reversing the president’s authority to dismiss parliament. This reversed the 8th amendment, introduced by General Zia in the 1980s, that kept parliament constitutionally weak.
Splits and Fusions
Around the same time, a consensus emerged around the question of religious extremism within Pakistan. The PPP had always been at loggerheads with Islamist forces, while the PMLN was closely allied with various Islamists in the 1980s and 1990s. However, in 2008 a new organization by the name of Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) launched an armed conflict against both the state and society of Pakistan. After their vicious bombing campaign against civilians between 2007–2014, and especially after the vicious attack on a school that left 146 students and teachers dead in 2014, a broad consensus emerged among the parliamentary parties that the TTP and similar forms of extremism had to be reversed.
The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) was passed in 2013 (later amended in 2017 and 2020). This reflected the political consensus against the Islamist armed insurgency. Nevertheless, in this period of intense struggle against the TTP, the PMLN remained aligned with or courted Islamist voices.
Differences between the PMLN and the military establishment re-emerged in 2013 over the questions of trade with India and curbing religious extremism. With the PMLN weakened, Imran Khan organized a protest movement called the Azadi March. Contesting the results of the 2013 elections, Imran Khan protested against the Sharif government in Islamabad for 126 days. He and his party were able to gain unprecedented media attention as a result of these protests. His popularity began to skyrocket soon thereafter, and he faced little resistance from either the military establishment or the religious Right.
When the Supreme Court removed the government of Nawaz Sharif and banned him from public office for a period of ten years on charges of corruption in 2017, Imran Khan felt vindicated. Riding the momentum created by this verdict, Khan’s party was able to win the 2018 election with promises of a Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan).
Although the PTI emerged as Pakistan’s largest political party, it did not manage to win a majority in the 2018 election. In fact, the PTI and its allies had 179 seats in the National Assembly while the opposition had 162. That meant that the opposition only needed to flip ten seats from the ruling coalition to win the no-confidence vote. Hence, while the PTI was by far the most popular political party, it could only stay in power through a coalition with other parties. From the very first day the PTI was in government, it was clear that the opposition would do its best to flip the PTI’s allies in order to bring down the PM or even the government itself.
Debt and Geopolitics
While domestic pressure on the PTI government grew, external factors also began to work against the prime minister. Not only was Pakistan strongly allied to the West during the Cold War, it was also a key state in the so-called “War on Terror”. This meant that Pakistan always had access to significant markets, credit, soft loans, and aid from the West. Over time, the Pakistani state became overly reliant on external financing. With the end of the Cold War and the War on Terror in Afghanistan, this external financing dried up. Meanwhile, the global recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an unprecedented economic crisis. Cost-push inflation reached 13.5 percent, forcing the PTI government to borrow 49.23 billion US dollars from foreign lenders in its 45 months in power.
The PTI was committed to a vaguely defined conception of an Islamic welfare state, but they had no substantive plan to deal with Pakistan’s structural dependency on international markets and foreign capital. Although not entirely of its own making, the chronic trade imbalance and budget crisis worsened. Moreover, the party’s administrative abilities left much to be desired.
Hedged in by these structural constraints, the PTI doubled down on its anti-corruption drive against political opponents, which only further aggravated and unsettled Pakistan’s traditional business class and the bureaucracy, long allied with the PMLN. The result was utterly anti-climactic in terms their rhetoric and the expectations they raised: unprecedented double-digit stagflation was all that “Naya Pakistan” seemed to offer.
As the crisis deepened, Imran Khan was desperate to find a solution to the escalating balance of trade problem. The largest portion of Pakistan’s import bill is comprised of oil and gas (about a fifth of all imports). It was precisely to lower this import bill, and not out of any other ideological commitment vis-à-vis Ukraine or Russia, that Imran Khan went to Moscow on 24 February, where the Russian government promised to trade oil and wheat in exchange for diplomatic support over Ukraine. Immediately upon his return, Imran Khan announced a major economic relief package on 28 February.
At the time, the military establishment was on board with his decision. Neither the political nor the military leadership foresaw the extent to which the Ukrainian invasion would mark a watershed moment in relations between Russia and the West.
In March, Pakistan received a letter from the EU “urging” the country to vote against Russia in the UN General Assembly on 24 March. Imran Khan denounced the letter in a public speech, declaring that Pakistan was not a slave of the EU. The EU, of course, is Pakistan’s largest trade partner. This verbal fracas no doubt greatly unnerved the military establishment.
For the last two decades, the US has been asking Pakistan to “do more” in relation to the War on Terror. More immediately, relations were already strained over the question of a US military base in Pakistan to aid the occupation of Afghanistan. The Pakistan military had been negotiating to gain control over who would be targeted in Afghanistan in exchange for the base.
Against this backdrop, a conversation between the outgoing Pakistani ambassador and US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu alerted the military establishment that the US took the matter of Pakistani relations with Russia far more seriously than they had previously believed.
The Military Makes Its Move
According to interviews given by Imran Khan, the PTI’s relations with the army had been deteriorating since October 2021. The military was very keen on having Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, appointed as Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence, succeed Gen. Faiz Hameed. Imran Khan wanted to retain Hameed, and it took three weeks before the PM’s office conceded. The back and forth led to rumours that relations between the elected government and the military establishment had begun to deteriorate.
One of the reasons that Imran Khan wanted to retain Hameed, as he put it in a candid interview, was to foil the no-confidence vote against his government that he knew was coming. On the other hand, as the vote began to gain momentum, the Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations, Maj. Gen. Babar Iftikhar, declared that the army would remain neutral in the conflict between political parties.
Khan came out swinging against the opposition, the EU, and even the military establishment in March 2022. However, this had the opposite effect of what he hoped to achieve. The military establishment does not want to jeopardize its relationships with the US or the EU. It began to see Khan as a liability and distance itself from his leadership. In fact, a few days before the vote was scheduled, Gen. Bajwa came on TV and announced, in English, a new foreign policy that denounced Russian aggression against Ukraine and stressed the strategic importance of Pakistan’s partnership with the US and EU.
This statement in particular made it more and more obvious that Imran Khan had lost the support of the army. After that, the result of the vote was a foregone conclusion. The PTI tried to stop the vote by getting the deputy speaker of the National Assembly to dismiss the motion, followed by the President dissolving the National Assembly and calling for fresh elections. Yet the move was challenged in the Supreme Court, which restored the parliament.
By this time, the opposition had won over the Mutahida Quomi Movement (MQM), with its seven seats in the National Assembly, by promising them a greater say in politics in Sindh province. The MQM is a political party based mainly in Karachi and Hyderabad whose support is rooted in the Urdu-speaking community of those cities. The Sindh provincial assembly is dominated by the PPP, which in turn was able to convince the MQM to join the opposition to Khan by conceding to some of its demands.
The opposition also flipped the Balochistan Awami Party, representing an additional five votes in the National Assembly. In this way, the opposition won 12 MNAs to its own side, guaranteeing success for its no-confidence motion.
Imran Khan accused the opposition of corruption and taking money from the US to bring down his government. He and his party have labelled the new government “imported” and are campaigning hard for early elections. The PTI held large rallies in several cities to build momentum for their march on the capital on 25 May, but the march itself was suppressed by the police and military. Since then, the PTI has lobbied to obtain Supreme Court guarantees to organize future marches.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis in Pakistan continues to grow worse. Under pressure from the IMF, the government removed subsidies on fuel, which is widely expected to lead to rising costs of living.
It would be wrong to equate the ouster of Khan’s government with previous military coups. Accusations notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the entire affair was conducted within Pakistan’s legal and parliamentary framework. Nor is there any meaningful evidence that the US engaged in regime change. There is evidence, on the other hand, that after losing the trust of the military establishment, the PTI lost key allies and could no longer command a majority in Parliament.
Imran Khan was obviously driven to adopt a neutral position over Ukraine by the balance of trade crisis caused by neoliberal policies. That crisis continues to deepen, with no real solution in sight. While the IMF has promised to extend its “Enhanced Policy” vis-à-vis the country, it has also asked Pakistan to eliminate subsidies on petrol, diesel, and electricity. This will inevitably escalate inflation. The present PMLN government is so terrified of the political consequences of this move that they are seriously considering handing over power to an interim government to manage the transition.
Although the military has repeatedly stated that it does not wish to be “dragged” into politics, the facts on the ground are that even a hint of “neutrality” is enough to create major tsunamis within Pakistani politics. This is because nearly all mainstream parties are more or less falling over each other to prove their loyalty to the military. Through its influence — directly through the National Security Council, and indirectly through its influence over other political parties — the military is able to dominate key policy areas: foreign policy and relations with the West and China, as well as economic policy, which is closely linked to foreign policy, and finally, it jealously guards any civilian intervention in its internal affairs when it comes to promotions or budgets.
Some commentators in the West think that this fallout may be a consequence of Pakistan’s close relationship with China. As the new cold war between the US and China heats up, it seems logical to think that the US would exert pressure on Pakistan to roll back the Belt and Road Initiative. However, as the sequence of events demonstrates, Ukraine proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. The military, which did not want to jeopardize its relationships with the US and EU, began to view Imran Khan’s belligerent rhetoric as a liability.
The Pakistani Left tends to regard both the PTI and the PMLN as essentially right-wing parties with no real plan of action against the neoliberal economic crisis facing Pakistan. The Left, on the other hand, which has no parliamentary presence at all, is composed of small groups of Communist and social democratic organizations like the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party or the Awami Workers’ Party. Nonetheless, although the organized Left is quite small, its intellectual influence through progressive writers, artists, and scholars continues to be significant.
On the whole it would be fair to say that the Left is strongly opposed to the PTI because of the latter’s soft Islamist narrative and policies. However, civil society, including most left-wing actors, remains strongly committed to the argument that the ouster of Imran Khan occurred within the framework of the constitution and parliamentary norms. As a result, there are no signs indicating that the Left will be able to generate any momentum from this scenario to strengthen its representation on Pakistan’s political stage any time soon.