What’s behind Pakistan’s political crisis?

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Pakistan is in the middle of a major political crisis. Prime Minister Imran Khan on Sunday blocked a no-confidence vote against him in Pakistan’s parliament. Facing a united and growing opposition, Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party claimed a US-led regime change conspiracy was behind efforts to remove him from power — and accused the opposition of working with Western powers.

Acting on this accusation, the deputy speaker of the National Assembly, loyal to Khan, rejected the vote. Invoking a constitutional clause demanding loyalty to the country, he claimed that this no-confidence motion was born of an international conspiracy, so he was rejecting it. Khan dissolved his government and the national legislative assembly, and called for fresh elections.

The opposition rushed to Pakistan’s Supreme Court to challenge Khan’s blocking of the vote and dissolution of the assembly, arguing that his steps were unconstitutional.

These events have heralded a political and constitutional emergency in Pakistan, a country with a history of military rule and a weak democracy at best. Complicated civil-military relations and judicial politics, along with Khan’s populist foreign policy rhetoric, are driving the crisis.

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The military helped Khan consolidate power but has cooled off

The turmoil is tied to controversies surrounding Khan’s election in 2018. To many observers, Pakistan’s army manipulated the election to ensure Khan’s victory. The military then played a major role in helping Khan consolidate power, taking steps including helping cobble together parliamentary coalitions and passing critical legislative votes. In exchange, the military’s power in the state’s governing structure expanded.

Under Khan’s government, opposition leaders spent their time in and out of court hearings and prison cells, fighting corruption charges. Ultimately, opposition parties settled on a wedge strategy — focusing on Khan while offering assurances to the senior military leadership to get them to back away from the prime minister.

In 2021, Khan’s relationship with Pakistan’s army chief, Qamar Bajwa, began to rupture, giving the opposition an opening. What caused the break? First, the army grew concerned about Khan’s governance, amid soaring inflation and unemployment, the pressure of anti-corruption investigations and foreign exchange struggles. The military’s own standing was undermined, given the popular perception of Khan as the military’s anointed political leader.

Second, Khan and Bajwa disagreed on foreign policy. Bajwa seems to prefer a more conciliatory approach to relations with the United States and India. But Khan leaned into a more populist foreign policy and pushed traditional anti-American and anti-Indian narratives. Khan traveled to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin as the Russian military marched into Ukraine, while Bajwa publicly condemned the invasion.

And third, Khan and Bajwa sparred on the appointment of the chief of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency. Khan was close to Gen. Faiz Hameed, who actively facilitated Khan’s rise to power. When Bajwa sought to change Hameed as the intelligence chief in late 2021, Khan blocked the move. Some in the opposition speculate that Khan wanted to keep Hameed in the role to help manipulate future elections.

This spat, and the break in Khan’s ties to the military, prompted the opposition to coalesce into a powerful alliance to mount the no-confidence bid.

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What is Khan’s strategy?

Facing the loss of military support that is essential to retaining his parliamentary majority, Khan appears to have settled on a strategy of inducing an election on his own terms. Taking a page from the international populist playbook, he forcefully argues that a Western conspiracy has been trying to topple him in reaction to his “independent foreign policy.”

Initially, Khan noted his opposition to US military bases in Pakistan for post-withdrawal counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and his decision to expand Pakistan’s ties with Russia. But as the vote approached, he ratcheted up the anti-US rhetoric before making the unsubstantiated claim that a senior US State Department official had verbally threatened regime change in response to Khan’s anti-Western positions. Khan’s strategy helps him mobilize his “base,” which now sees a patriotic duty to support him. Khan also has tried to delegitimize his opponents, casting them not just as corrupt and self-serving plutocrats, but also as traitors serving anti-national interests.

The battle moves to the courts

Pakistan’s Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of Khan’s actions. The court has frequently resolved major political questions of government structure and change and the institutional separation of powers, and the ongoing controversy is no exception. Most constitutional experts agree that Khan’s actions do not have constitutional cover, given their basis in a tortured reading of the constitution that is difficult to justify legally. Alongside political parties, bar associations, which have historically played a significant role in Pakistan’s judicial politics, have publicly opposed Khan’s actions.

But many Supreme Court justices are sympathetic to Khan’s anti-corruption populism. Several judges on the bench for this case facilitated the PTI’s rise to power in 2018 by undermining and disqualifying leaders of the opposition parties on grounds of political corruption. In addition, the court has a history of decisions designed to accommodate the political interests of multiple stakeholders in politically salient cases, which in this case would include the PTI, the opposition and the military.

If the court upholds the actions taken by Khan, may get the elections he wants. But the opposition isn’t likely to accept new elections willingly, especially given Khan’s allegations that elements of the opposition are part of a foreign conspiracy. Credible elections with buy-in from all sides will be difficult. Should the court reverse Khan’s actions, restore the assembly and allow the vote of no confidence to go through, Khan is likely to launch mass protests, especially if the opposition forms a government. Either way, political uncertainty is likely to continue. As always in Pakistan, the wild card is the military. Some in Pakistan are wondering whether the military had a last-minute change of heart and is supporting Khan’s actions from behind the scenes. But leaks to the news media suggest that the military was also surprised — and may be unwilling to get behind Khan’s foreign conspiracy narrative. In either scenario, the military is likely to be on standby for a more direct intervention in Pakistan’s governance, in case the crisis doesn’t abate easily.

Check out all TMC’s coverage of the Russia and Ukraine crisis in our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

Yasser Kureshi (@Y2Kureshi) is a postdoctoral fellow in constitutional politics and law at Trinity College, University of Oxford.

Asfandyar Mir (@asfandyarmir) is a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace.

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