Is it time to start thinking about a post-Imran Khan Pakistan?

An upcoming no-confidence vote shows how shaky the ground beneath the Prime Minister's feet has become

Imran Khan is facing an unprecedented effort in Pakistan's Parliament to oust his government. AP
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On Sunday, Pakistan’s National Assembly is due to vote on a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government. Ahead of that vote, which has been mooted for weeks, this is an ideal time to step back and appreciate the nature of the underlying problem. With the drama of parliamentary politics, Pakistan’s system is likely to undergo serious stress in the coming days, resulting in the further erosion of democratic norms. And while it may seem like a Pakistani or South Asian problem, it is intimately tied to global trends on the health of democratic governments.

It is important to remember that much of the moral basis of Imran Khan’s claim to power derived not from his narrow victory in the 2018 general elections, but rather from his party's allegations of systemic rigging against him in the election before that. These were allegations, it is important to note, that international election observers did not substantiate. Now, Mr Khan has sought to undermine the legality and legitimacy of the parliamentary vote that threatens his government. Although an opposition victory seems likely, it is unclear how easily he will accept the result and relinquish office. And even if he is seen to the door, there is already a widespread notion in Pakistan that, just like in 2013, his supporters will wage a campaign to reverse that result in the elections that will ensue.

If this sounds familiar, it should – Mr Khan’s approach, in many ways, closely resembles that of former US president Donald Trump. That unquenchable self-confidence of a figure who established their reputation outside politics (cricket and philanthropy in Imran Khan’s case) is attractive to a very significant portion of the electorate, especially those whose sense of national pride and confidence in the future has been dented.

But the dark side of this self-defined identity as a "winner" is that defeat is not only unacceptable, but inconceivable. So setbacks can only be explained by fraud and conspiracy. And once the other side is believed to have thrown out the rules, it becomes much easier to justify similar behaviour. The fact that the world is seeing such similar trajectories in countries as different as the US and Pakistan suggests that the challenge of preserving democracy in the 21st century is a problem that transcends religion or culture.

The dark side of a self-defined identity as a "winner" is that defeat is not only unacceptable, but inconceivable

But there are some specific problems that democracy in Pakistan faces, the weightiest of which is the legacy of repeated military and judicial intervention in the political process. It is clearly understood in Pakistan that the military-judicial establishment which bolstered Mr Khan's party in the 2018 elections has withdrawn its support, leaving the opposition space to reassert itself.

One of the liveliest debates in Pakistan this spring has been whether this withdrawal of support represents the victory or defeat of democracy. Is it progress that the unelected establishment has backed away from its earlier course of action? Or is this a continuation of the idea that the fortunes of governments rise and fall based on politics behind closed doors? Indeed, if Mr Khan's government falls because it is no longer in the establishment's favour, that would be the perpetuation of a streak that has prevented every single Pakistani prime minister after independence in 1947 from completing a full term. For some Pakistanis, even a peaceful transition on this basis would mark a step backwards.

There may not be a single answer, given the "hybrid" nature of Pakistan’s government. On the one hand, the popularity of Mr Khan's government has fallen, and the subsequent precariousness of the Prime Minister's position confirms that the lack of a strong popular mandate is not something the establishment is willing to compensate for. But on the other hand, the opposition’s successful public courting of the military reinforces the notion that they and the higher judiciary remain "umpires" within the country’s political system, capable of tilting the entire playing field.

So what turned the military against Mr Khan, who by all indications was far and away their favourite within the political class? There have been a number of irritants, from his government's populist foreign policy to his defence of Punjab’s highly unpopular Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. The biggest conflict, however, centres on Mr Khan’s desire to promote the career of Lt Gen Faiz Hameed – first by extending his term as Director-General ISI, and then attempting to speed up his appointment as Chief of Army Staff (COAS) by denying an extension to the current COAS, Gen Qamar Bajwa. As I have written previously in these pages, Mr Khan's actions in this regard were considered a serious challenge tothe military's control over its affairs.

Pakistan’s electoral politics is built around cults of personality and patronage networks. Every powerful prime minister has attempted to put a man of their own as the army chief in the hope that this would allow them to lock in the military’s backing. But most generals that accept such favours support the institution over the Prime Minister when forced to choose. The few who go the other way generally find themselves sidelined by their peers.

A powerful alliance built on a personal relationship between Lt Gen Hameed and Mr Khan – the two are considered very close – could, in a system where the military and premiership are so closely tied up, allow them to stay on indefinitely in the Prime Minister and COAS roles. This might be mutually beneficial, but would have come at the expense of the army’s institutional interests.

It’s important to understand that the army sees itself as the ultimate guarantor of Pakistan’s survival. It has come to believe through experience that to fulfil that mission it has to maintain professional excellence, autonomy in national security policy and, above all, a corporate outlook that looks beyond the interests of any one man, even the COAS.

What the Army is looking for is an institutional relationship with political leaders over and above personal relationships. That is the essence of the so-called "same page" approach to hybrid civil-military power sharing. No matter how the vote turns out, it is unclear if Mr Khan and the army will ever really be on the same page again from here on out.

Published: March 31, 2022, 7:29 AM