A political crisis has erupted in Pakistan, following months of unrest since the removal of former Prime Minister Imran Khan in April. Khan lost a no-confidence motion in the parliament and quickly called for his supporters to take to the streets. Since April, protests have occurred across the country with thousands of participants, as Khan accuses his removal of being a conspiracy orchestrated by the US and his political opposition. The political crisis intensified on November 3, when Khan was shot at a protest in Wazirabad. Khan survived with a wound to the leg and has resumed his fight to return to power, calling for the continuation of his “Long March” toward the capital Islamabad. Since his removal, Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif, one of the leaders of the opposition, has become the temporary Prime Minister in wait for a new election. Yet no general election date has been set. While Khan and his supporters push for the immediate election, the opposition seeks to hold elections when due in August next year. Furthermore, a new army chief has recently been elected by current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, a crucial position since the army greatly influences Pakistan’s politics, adding to the tense political situation. Pakistan has reached a political stalemate that could turn into a harmful conflict. Pakistan is already heavily challenged by an economic crisis and the destruction after the catastrophic floodings, and further political unrest may only make matters even worse.
Imran Khan, the PTI, and his Political Opposition
Imran Khan was elected Prime Minister in July 2018 as the leader of the party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The party was founded in 1996 with Khan as the chairman, and it emerged as a socio-political movement for “justice,” including fighting inequality and corruption. PTI grew in popularity over the upcoming decades and gained a majority in the 2018 election, which upset his political opponents. Imran Khan is seen as a charismatic populist who can gather huge public support for his party’s causes. In 2018 he vowed to fight corruption and improve governance, yet the results have fallen short. Pakistan has faced severe economic challenges which the government was unable to counter. Furthermore, Pakistan ranked 140 among 180 countries in the Transparency International Index. According to the index, corruption in 2021 was worse than in 2018. Still, Khan gathers great support among voters in Pakistan and a majority supports his call for direct elections, which might result in his return as Prime Minister. Khan has continued his “Long March” to Islamabad in demand of immediate elections, and supporters have openly stated that they are ready to defend themselves if the protests are met with violence. Khan has recently been accused of derailing democracy when commenting on the possibility of martial laws being imposed in Pakistan as the tense political situation continues.
Khan’s no-confidence vote was led by the opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Some key figures are the current Prime Minister Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif (leader of PML-N), Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, and Asif Ali Zardari (heads of PPP). Khan has been harsh on the opposition, calling them “a gang of thieves,” threatening to expose their corruption and claim accountability, and the no-confidence vote was seen as an attempt to save themselves. However, the opposition pointed to Khan’s weak performance during his time as Prime Minister, with spiraling inflation and a massive devaluation of the rupee. Additionally, Khan has been criticized for appointing Usman Buzdar as Chief Minister in the Punjab province, who later was accused of widespread corruption. The opposition eventually won the no-confidence vote against Khan in April, as dozens of party members defected and some key allies voted against him. Yet, critical voices point to the army as the decisive actor who tipped the scales to the point that resulted in Khan’s removal, as Khan lost its support during his time as Prime Minister.
The Army: A Powerful and Decisive Player in Politics
Pakistan is a democracy, yet the country has a powerful and influential army, which significantly impacts politics. Pakistan has a long history of coups and military involvement in politics. There have been four military coups against elected governments since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, the latest being in 1999. The army has continued to have a significant impact on politics, especially concerning security and foreign policy. When Khan became Prime Minister in 2018, he announced his good relations with the army as the two were “on the same page,” and it seemed like Khan enjoyed close ties with the military during his first months in government. However, differences quickly appeared as his leadership did not fulfil its promises, and his opposition blamed the military for bringing him to power. Tensions rose further in late 2021 when Khan opposed the army’s decision to appoint a new chief of the intelligence services since he was a close ally of the incumbent Lt.Gen.Faiz Hameed. Khan eventually lost this fight against the army, and their cleavages became more visible. The war in Ukraine also became a source to widen the division between the army and Khan. With his anti-American policies and fear of India’s growing geopolitical influence, Khan has been getting closer to Russia, with a historic and criticized visit to Moscow on February 24. He became the first Pakistani Prime Minister to visit Russia since 1999, which happened to take place as the invasion of Ukraine began. While Khan has resisted condemning the war in Ukraine and said Pakistan was to be neutral in the conflict, the military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has criticized Russia for its aggression on Ukraine, showing further political differences between Khan and the army.
Critics have long accused the military of orchestrating the removal of elected governments that do not follow the military’s institutional lines, which Khan and his supporters accused the military of having followed this modus operandi in April. Khan believes his former ally has betrayed him, and he has tried to halter the election of a new army chief which has been discussed this fall. The now outgoing army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, admits that the military has “meddled in politics for decades,” but since February, it has been decided that the institution will no longer do so. Still, Khan has continued to criticize the army, and the newly elected army chief General Asim Munir, appointed by the current Prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, might become yet another backlash for Khan and his relationship with the military.
The Future is Uncertain
Pakistan is facing great challenges ahead, dealing with both an economic crisis and political instability. Politics are tumultuous, with an “all versus Khan” dynamic, in a changing environment with both a new Prime Minister and a new Chief of the army. The removal of Khan could be seen as part of the democratic process of parliamentary accountability, yet history seems to repeat itself in Pakistan. No democratically elected Prime Minister has ever completed a five-year term due to military coups, presidential ousting, and disqualifications from holding public office. The democratic process in Pakistan is vulnerable and has experienced considerable instability since the country’s independence. Corruption allegations, grievances, and political turmoil are common themes in Pakistani history, with the military as a recurrent stakeholder in politics.
It is impossible to predict the future of Pakistan, but it does not seem like Khan is to be excluded. His public support appears to have grown even larger since his removal in April, and his continued rallies across the country still attract the masses. The question is when the general elections will be held and if Khan will gain a majority again. Khan has shown his clear will for elections to be held this winter in hopes of keeping up the momentum. On Saturday, Khan said that the PTI would resign from the provincial assemblies to force the Shehbaz Sharif-led government to hold immediate elections. It is still to be seen what role the new Chief of the army will play in this political conundrum. Even though it is said that the army would no longer interfere with politics, Khan’s ousting has again put the army at the epicentre of the Pakistani political landscape. Tensions will likely increase continuously, and it is difficult to say for sure that there is a non-violent solution to the current political crisis unfolding in Pakistan, a country with a turbulent past and a vulnerable democracy.
Betty Wehtje is a research assistant intern at Beyond the Horizon ISSG. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies at Lund University in Sweden.