Pakistan Closes a Chaotic Political Chapter. It May Not Be the Climax.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In the last hours before the midnight deadline for a no-confidence motion in Pakistan’s Parliament, the capital was on the brink.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s allies in Parliament had spent the day Saturday working for any delay they could, filibustering with angry speeches denouncing the opposition as traitors. Around government buildings, military troops were put on alert and prison vans were deployed.
Reports of escalating tensions between Mr. Khan and top military leaders stoked fears of further turmoil and prompted a wave of denials from both camps. As midnight neared, a pre-emptive petition was filed in Pakistan’s high court to try to block any effort by Mr. Khan to fire the country’s powerful army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, court filings show.
In the end, Mr. Khan was still pushed out by a majority no-confidence vote. On Sunday, many observers expressed relief that the crisis did not end in a military intervention after a week that was notably tense even by the standards of Pakistan’s tumultuous political history.
Mr. Khan had fought bitterly for his political survival after key military leaders appeared to withdraw their support for his government, and after a group of lawmakers that included some defectors from the prime minister’s coalition moved to remove him from office.
Mr. Khan, a populist leader and former cricket star, denounced his political opponents as traitors conspiring with American officials to oust him from power, a claim denied both within Pakistan and the United States. He rallied tens of thousands to the streets in a pointed reminder of his past as an opposition leader who could paralyze the capital with mass unrest. And he defied the Constitution to dissolve Parliament and block the no-confidence vote — a move Pakistan’s Supreme Court later overturned.
But even in a moment hailed by some as a triumph for Pakistan’s fragile democratic institutions, the crisis offered a stark reminder that in the country’s deeply compromised political system, powerful military leaders still hold the reins.
Many politicians accuse the military of easing Mr. Khan into the prime minister’s post in 2018, saying that the security forces winnowed the opposition in a campaign of coercion and intimidation. Military officials have denied those accusations, as have Mr. Khan and his aides.
But after Mr. Khan veered from military leaders’ foreign policy priorities and clashed with them over major military appointments, they helped orchestrate his fall, analysts say.
“This fits into the larger historical arc of a civilian government losing favor with the establishment, that is Pakistan’s military, and that leads to their ouster from office,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Just the mechanisms through which things are happening now are different because of constitutional changes made over the years to guard against the establishment.”
Now, there is the prospect of more turmoil as Pakistan heads into highly contentious elections in the coming months, with its parties even more bitterly polarized.
Through Pakistan’s 75-year history as an independent nation, the military has seized power in three coups, often profoundly changing the country’s political norms. But Mr. Khan’s bid to remain in office was the first time a civilian leader had openly violated the Constitution for his own political gain, analysts say. And during his time in office, he increasingly used the country’s institutions to harass his opponents and critics — especially journalists.
“Even people who might have been sympathetic to Imran have seen the constitutional vandalism and the chaos caused by last week,” said Cyril Almeida, a former editor and columnist at Dawn, a leading Pakistani newspaper. “Now, across the political spectrum, you have an understanding that the military’s interference in politics is undesirable.”
Some analysts saw Mr. Khan’s maneuvering as more evidence that the country’s political institutions remain vulnerable to abuse by elites. But even after the no-confidence vote, and his loss of the military’s public favor, he is still in the picture.
Many noted that military officials on Sunday went to pains to deny reports that Mr. Khan had sought to fire the army chief, or to discredit him further. And the former prime minister is widely expected to try to marshal his party loyalists — and there are many, still galvanized by his stated platform of fighting corruption and helping the poor — in elections expected this fall.
But at a time when Pakistan’s grave crises require at least some consensus to address, the coming campaign season has taken on the outlines of an existential ideological fight among political blocs.
Pakistan is grappling with soaring inflation that has squeezed the poor and middle class alike. Its immense national debt poses a further drag on its sinking economy. Violent extremism is on the rise, with the return of militant attacks that plagued the country in past decades and continued impunity for Islamist movement leaders who seem to keep a grip on both justice and public discourse.
But on Sunday night, in a move seemingly kicking off Mr. Khan’s next election campaign, thousands of his supporters flooded the streets of Islamabad, where the tone was more about nationalism and division than about the issues.
Long lines of cars jammed the city’s main street. Supporters hoisted Mr. Khan’s party flags in the air and chanted, “Friends of America are traitors!” — an echo of Mr. Khan’s assertion that the United States had conspired with political opposition leaders to have him removed from office.
Large protests were also held in Lahore and Karachi as crowds turned out to support their ousted leader.
While the public support may not be enough to win Mr. Khan’s party a significant number of seats in the coming election, he still enjoys significant support within its ranks — opening the door for his possible return to the office of prime minister in the future after the top brass with which he is at odds retires.
For now, his charged rhetoric has left an already deeply polarized public even more divided.
“I’m more and more convinced that what we are seeing is not simply a change of government but a change of politics in Pakistan,” said Adil Najam, the dean of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. “This rhetoric of extreme personal attack, visceral hatred for the other and both sides calling each other traitors is going to define the structure of politics for many months and years to come.”
Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud contributed reporting.