Imran Khan’s Removal is a Blow, Not a Victory for Pakistan’s Democracy

Photograph Source: U.S. Department of State – Public Domain

This Sunday, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan was removed from his prime ministerial post in a no-confidence vote in the Pakistani parliament by a slim margin of 174 votes out of the 342-member legislative body.

The vote came after a dramatic week in which the Supreme Court of Pakistan deemed unconstitutional a move by the deputy speaker, a member of Khan’s party, to block the no-confidence motion.

While Khan is the first Prime Minister to be removed by the parliament in such a way, his removal continues the tradition of holders of the post not finishing their terms, with the list coming to nineteen and counting.

While opposition supporters and other sections of the international media are framing Khan’s dismissal as a victory for democracy and rule of law, the reality is that this action is likely to have deleterious effects on Pakistan’s fragile democracy that will be more apparent in the months and years to come.

Who is Khan?

Imran Khan was already a national celebrity in Pakistan before entering politics in 1996, having a glamorous twenty-year career in cricket which ended with him as captain of Pakistan’s first World Cup-winning cricket team.

Khan spent the next 15 years on the margins of Pakistan’s political scene, before emerging as a potent third political force in 2011. His party, the Tehreek-e-Insaaf, became a viable electoral entity in competition with the two major parties, the PPP and PMLN, both ruled in a dynastic fashion and dominated by feudal constituents.

Khan is known for his brand of populist street politics, anti-corruption rhetoric and Islamic-themed public messaging. He was a trenchant critic of Pakistan’s involvement in the US War on Terror and occupation of Afghanistan, and regularly held rallies condemning the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan as a violation of sovereignty and human rights.

In 2018, Khan assumed the post of Prime Minister after his party formed a coalition government in an election contested by the opposition of having been rigged. The reality is that no civilian government can assume power in the country without the active hand of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment, the most powerful institution in the country.

Mission Improbable

Upon assuming power, Khan faced an unprecedented de-legitimization campaign in the Western press, accusing him of being a loose cannon and a pawn for the military.

Claiming he would usher in a progressive era of ‘New Pakistan’, Khan was confronted with an unprecedented series of challenges in his three and a half years. His own inexperience, a weak coalition government, strident opposition and entrenched systemic corruption meant his odds of delivering on his lofty campaign promises were slim from the outset.

The most immediate issue was the currency crisis, with Pakistan’s foreign reserves having been so depleted that Khan was forced to appeal to ally states and the IMF for resources to stabilize Pakistan’s economy.

Policy-wise, his tenure was a mixed bag. Khan’s government introduced much-needed programs on social welfare and the environment, and his measured pandemic response earned international praise. He was criticized for crackdowns on press freedom and for certain cabinet selections, as well as his silence on China’s persecution of the Uighurs.

The inability to curb the rapid inflation and rising prices on food and essentials, a global phenomenon but particularly acute in Pakistan, is what the coalition of opposition parties seized upon late last year when they launched their bid to remove Khan.

US Regime Change?

The specter of the US relations looms large on Pakistan politics. As the vote neared end of March, Khan announced at a public rally that a foreign hand is behind the drive by the opposition. He claimed that the Biden administration was directly threatening Pakistan with dire consequences if the no-confidence vote was not passed.

He pointed to an ambassadorial meeting with Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, in which this threat was communicated through official channels to his government. His party supporters also point to a flurry of meetings at the US embassy of defecting members of his party close in the announcement of the no-confidence vote as further evidence of conspiracy, which the Biden administration denies and the opposition rubbishes.

Despite fraternal relations of Khan with the Trump administration, Biden’s office has yet to be so accommodating, having not even shared a phone call with the premier. This cold shoulder treatment continued even during the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Khan made an ill-timed visit to Russia to meet with Putin at the eve of the launch of their Ukrainian invasion. According to Khan, this visit and the previous efforts of his administration to initiate an independent foreign policy outside of the US orbit, so incensed the Biden administration that they were leveraging their diplomatic pressure to ensure the no-confidence vote passed. In the background, the military establishment appears to have cooled their own relations with Khan and are trying to salvage the strategic relationship with the US.

Trying to prove such an active conspiracy is difficult yet the possibility of foreign interference cannot be discounted. The US has a long history of involvement in Pakistan’s internal affairs, from steady support to its military generals to drone strikes inside its tribal areas to the Abbottabad operation. Most notably, the US is widely believed to have actively supported the opposition movement to the popular Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, leading to his removal by the military in 1977 and eventual judicial murder.

Uncertainty Ahead

Though Khan is no longer prime minister, his narrative of a foreign conspiracy appears to have resonated with a wide section of the public and support base is growing. The opposition, now in charge, faces the unenviable task of steadying Pakistan’s economic ship while simultaneously being accused of being an ‘imported government’ by Khan.

What would have been more beneficial for Pakistan’s democracy rather than this destabilizing status quo would have been for Khan to finish his prime ministerial term by the stated date of October 2023 and then have the public determine his fate in a general election. Basic trust in continuity in the democratic process would have at least been established.

His removal based on the flimsy pretext of poor economic performance is a new low and ensures future leaders will always be on slippery ground, at the mercy of being displaced by a constellation of forces, inside and outside the country, as has been the case in Pakistan’s history. What more, the fragmented dynamics of Pakistan’s political party representation means that it is unlikely for any party in the future, either Khan’s party or its rivals,  to be able to form a strong clear parliamentary majority in the center  unless without heavy rigging, leading to rickety coalitions headed by leaders at constant risk of being dismissed.

Political backrooms deals have replaced the choices of voters and reduced elections to further insignificance. The no-confidence motion, far from being a check on non-performing leaders in charge, only weakens Pakistan’s democratic setup that badly needs stability and trust on the ballot.