Political situation in Pakistan has made a dramatic turn for the worst, with temperatures touching the roof. A police raid on Islamabad’s Parliament Lodges, the sprawling complex housing members of parliament, on the night of March 10 has heightened tensions. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the firebrand head of Pakistan Democratic Movement opposition alliance, has issued a call for nationwide blockades of major highways to protest the police raid. Reports of highways and roads being blocked by opposition activists in some parts of the country started coming in soon after the call.
The police action and arrest of a few parliamentarians from the opposition parties came hours after reports started emerging about the presence of members of Ansar-ul-Islam in large numbers in the lodges, which is within the parameters of Islamabad’s highly sensitive red zone. Ansarul Islam is a uniformed baton-wielding volunteer force of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) of Fazlur Rehman, which Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed described as “private militia”. The incident added to an already explosive political situation. Islamabad has become Pakistan’s political flashpoint where members of parliament are gathering for the impending confidence vote against Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Khan is fighting to retain office after the opposition parties submitted the no-confidence motion against him on March 8. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) president Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Asif Zardari and Fazlur Rehman have been accusing him of corruption, misgovernance and compromising Pakistan’s international relations, especially with the European Union.
Khan has been a vocal critic of the United States and the EU policies for South Asia and rejecting objections to Islamabad cozying up to Russia, which he visited in February.
He accuses the opposition leaders of launching the no-trust motion as part of their efforts to save their skin from the accountability dragnet. Pretty much all the movers of the no-confidence motion in the parliament face corruption charges in numerous courts. Interestingly enough, most of the cases these leaders face were instituted by none else but themselves against each other during their stints in power.
Under the Constitution, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser is now bound to convene the assembly session within 14 days after submission of the requisition notice, which means he will have to call the sitting by March 22, the day when Islamabad will be hosting a two-day meeting of the foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).
After tabling the resolution through a motion before the 342-member lower house of the parliament, the speaker will be required to put it for a vote no sooner than three days and not later than seven days. Under the Constitution, 68 members (20 percent of the total members) of the National Assembly can submit a no-confidence resolution against the prime minister, whereas a minimum of one-fourth (86 members) of the members are required to requisition the assembly session. The opposition is presently 10 votes short of the magical number of 172 required for the passage of the resolution in the National Assembly.
After submission of a no-confidence resolution, the prime minister cannot dissolve the National Assembly.
The opposition’s move is raising several questions that are part of public discourse both in Pakistan and overseas, especially in the Pakistani community in North America. Here are a few that are the subject of discussion.
1- Will the no-trust move succeed?
Pakistan has no history of a prime minister being voted out through a no-confidence motion. The chances of success of the motion against Khan are even. The opposition parties’ confidence level is also high because of the growing and visible rift within PTI. Aleem Khan, one of his close confidants, has switched sides and joined a dissident group within the party, led by Jehangir Khan Tareen, a sugar baron who once enjoyed very close relations with Khan.
The dissident group’s demands include replacing Usman Buzdar, the controversial sheepish chief minister of Punjab province. Buzdar’s appointment has remained problematic not just with the opposition, within the PTI but also with the country’s powerful civil-military establishment. A PTI outsider, Buzdar has been ruling Pakistan’s largest province since Khan’s dramatic ascension to power in the 2018 elections with a thin majority. If the no-confidence motion against Khan succeeds, the Buzdar government in Punjab is unlikely to survive. But new reports say given the infighting within the party he is considering replacing Buzdar. Will he replace Buzdar, and will this late move save him from being voted out remains a big question.
2- Is Pakistan’s military involved?
Pakistan’s powerful military has a history of political maneuvering to control and steward the democratic dispensation. Khan’s relations with the military have remained bumpy. Grapevines in Islamabad speculate that the trust level between him and the military has been on a slippery slope in recent weeks. “One reason for the opposition’s pressure on Khan government is the reports making the rounds that the military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is retiring this November, wants yet another extension in service,” an informed source told Pakistan Week from Islamabad over the phone.
At March 8th presser, the opposition leaders, who often accuse the military of bringing Khan into power through electoral fraud, avoided criticizing the military. The sources in Islamabad said there were significant signatures of the military somehow influencing the events. “The changing attitude of the political faces of the military, especially PML-Q of Chaudharies of Gujrat, MQM and a few actors within the PTI, shows that all may not be as rosy as the Khan government would like Pakistanis to believe,” the source added.
Pakistan military’s spokesman Major General Babar Iftikhar refused to comment on the reports of the military supporting the opposition movement. If Khan is voted out, the military is unlikely to escape the blame.
3- Do the US and the West want to dislodge Khan?
Many Pakistanis suspect that the opposition’s confidence is reflective of the support it may be receiving from the international players. Khan is known for his vocal criticism of the US and EU. His latest tirade against the US and EU, which are Pakistan’s largest trading partners as well, came on March 6 during a public meeting in the Punjab province.
“What Pakistan got out of supporting the West apart from losing 80,000 of its citizens, displacement of 3.5 million people, and losing over $100 billion,” he told his supporters. His speech was interpreted by American analysts here in the US as reflective of him feeling the growing pressure of the opposition moves.
“Facing mounting political pressure & an impending no-confidence vote, Imran Khan gave a blistering speech meant to fire up his support base w/its focus on the corrupt opposition & criticism of the US/West-two of his favorite themes going back to his earliest days as a politician,” tweeted Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at The Wilson Center.
Michael, however, did not see any connection between Khan’s political troubles and the so-called international establishment. In a subsequent tweet, he avoided making any projections, saying: “There’s often been noise about threats to IK’s hold on power over his nearly 4 years office, and each time it’s ended up being much ado about nothing.”
Unlike Kugelman, some senior Pakistani analysts and top former officials have speculated that the no-confidence motion is not a coincidence. One such comment which made headlines was by Lt. Gen (Read) Haroun Aslam, who tweeted: “Hype in anti-Imran Khan campaign is home grown? Hell No. “Regime change” familiar tactics of US & allies.”
General Haroun is a familiar name in Pakistan. He was a top contender to become the head of the military during the government of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who superseded him and elevated Raheel Sharif to the position. General Haroun, following the military’s tradition, later resigned. No wonder, his comments on the opposition’s move made it to the headlines. Thus the so-called international establishment may or may not be involved in the efforts for Khan’s ouster, it remains part of political discourse and blame-game.
4- Will a successful no-confidence motion solve Pakistan’s economic challenges?
Changing a sitting government through a parliamentary vote is a pure democratic exercise and Pakistan’s opposition has every right to use it. However, just a change in government may not be enough if it cannot change the life of average Pakistanis facing record inflation, unemployment, and other economic challenges.
Imran Khan may not have delivered perfect governance but his performance is not as terrible that should warrant him being replaced. And also, a change would have been acceptable if the opposition parties were offering a solid economic plan and an all-endearing foreign policy vision. But the unfortunate reality is that the opposition has no economic plan or national vision that can be considered competing or promising. In fact, the opposition has no plan other than ousting Khan, which basically is no plan for Pakistan.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has always struggled to come up to the expectations of many voters, both because of the lack of experience in governance and questionable choices he has made in choosing his team. But there is no denying the fact that the direction he is taking Pakistan into, despite all its weaknesses, remains most promising. May it be increasing the country’s exports, decreasing the current account deficit or dealing with COVID 19 pandemic or building new water reservoirs, or making efforts to meet the climate change challenge with national tree plantations, etc., his efforts are visible.
Thus, if the no-confidence move succeeds, there is no guarantee that it will bring political and economic stability. In fact, it will usher in a new era of political instability and economic depression. In a nutshell, Pakistan’s opposition may deliver a new government but it will push Pakistan into more challenging times. The opposition will get the most while Pakistanis will get nothing out of the no-confidence resolution if it succeeds.
5- Will a failed no-confidence bring political stability?
If the no-confidence motion fails, it is unlikely to bring the political tensions down. Prime Minister Khan has promised to press the corruption cases against the opposition even more if the no-confidence motion fails. His public statements are enough to give any future actions a semblance of political victimization. Thus political instability may haunt Pakistan until the next elections. The no-confidence is a non-starter for average Pakistanis and is pushing Pakistan into more avoidable instability.
The writer is a New York-based journalist of Pakistan origin.