Is Imran Khan's fight for a 'new Pakistan' only just beginning?

After sweeping to power as a pro-military figure, he will cling to relevance by taking on the establishment

Imran Khan was ousted as Pakistan prime minister by a no-confidence motion in parliament late on Saturday. AFP
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Imran Khan's government in Pakistan has fallen after it lost a vote of no-confidence in the National Assembly late on Saturday. It leaves many wondering about how to make sense of this moment. On the one hand, it was the first such motion to be successfully carried out in the country's parliamentary history. On the other, however, Mr Khan's ouster has extended the streak of prime ministers failing to complete their term with a "normal" transfer of power.

Was it a victory for democracy or, as Mr Khan and his supporters claim, the defeat of popular sovereignty by foreign and domestic forces?

Neither framing captures the realities of Pakistan's "hybrid" political system, where the vote, the courts and the army all enjoy their own deep legitimacy with the public, although not necessarily with one another. Meanwhile, the constitution itself – although enjoying unquestioned legitimacy – does not offer a blueprint of how to actually reconcile these often competing power centres. This competition is one of the fundamental sources of the country's turbulence, and it is a picture that can only be painted in shades of grey.

In the first few decades after independence in 1947, the three main legs upon which Pakistan's political system rested were the army, the civil service and the propertied classes. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, prime minister from 1973-77, was a pro-military figure who swept to power on a tide of populism. He subordinated the civil service to the politicians before falling out with his fellow politicos and the army. By the late 1980s, the courts – backed by the bar associations – had replaced the bureaucrats as an independent pillar of the system. The army eventually reconciled itself to this fact after the success of the Lawyers' Movement that deposed Gen Pervez Musharraf's military dictatorship in 2008. The "establishment" since then has been very much based on a consensus between the army and senior judiciary. Mr Khan advertised himself as the first honest politician to join that institutional consensus.

There are few happy endings in Pakistani politics in part because there are so few permanent endings

It should be noted here that individual civilian politicians are not necessarily always committed to liberal democracy. In fact, its most powerful have often attempted to consolidate power in an illiberal or unconstitutional manner, triggering political crises. This was what Bhutto did in the 1970s, Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, did in the 1990s, and what Mr Khan attempted to do after his election in 2018. By alienating other political parties and other powerful institutions, they rendered themselves vulnerable to overthrow – and they inevitably ushered in periods of greater military domination.

Like Bhutto, Mr Khan's rise was based on a nationalist blend of pro-military and populist politics that masked authoritarian tendencies. Like Bhutto, Mr Khan was noted for often displaying a grandiose sense of historical mission. And like Bhutto, he increasingly took refuge in anti-American populism as the impact of his sometimes polarising politics caught up with him.

It is also very likely that, like Bhutto, Mr Khan will not relent in his quest for power and will turn his populist rhetoric increasingly directly against the military, the judiciary, parliament and even the constitution. The military's quest for greater political stability and better economic governance will, therefore, only be partially fulfilled by Mr Khan's departure. We are likely to see an extended campaign of agitation aimed at mobilising support for the ousted prime minister and his party for the next election – scheduled, for now, to be held in August 2023 – and seeking to delegitimise the aforementioned power centres if they fail to deliver the outcome that Mr Khan desires.

The establishment's response to Bhutto's continued threat to stability after his removal in 1977 was brutally direct: they hanged him two years later. In doing so, they transformed Bhutto from a deeply divisive authoritarian into a political martyr that has haunted the military in particular ever since. It is unlikely that they will make the same mistake twice. There is one important difference, however: Bhutto was the favourite to win a fresh election initially planned in the aftermath of the coup; it appears unlikely that Mr Khan will be in the position to do the same.

It is probably unwise to predict the leadership and composition of the next government, but it is clear that Shehbaz Sharif, the brother of three-time former prime minister Nawaz, will play a significant role. Mr Sharif served three terms as a popular and effective chief minister of the province of Punjab, the most populous and politically significant unit within the country. The military's deep distrust of Nawaz, who has been legally barred from political office for life after he was ousted in 2017 over corruption charges, does not seem to extend to the other Sharif, who is seen as "reasonable".

Famous for his attention to detail and micro-managerial style of governance, a Sharif-guided government would make for a stark contrast with Mr Khan's seemingly ad-hoc decision-making style. His emphasis on physical infrastructure and technocratic competence may well strike a chord with many in the public. But he is also likely to face the same challenges as every other government in Pakistani history, including a no-holds-barred power struggle, massive structural economic challenges, and a watchful, resource-hungry military with more political levers than the government.

There are few happy endings in Pakistani politics in part because there are so few permanent endings. One branch of the Sharifs led by Shehbaz Sharif appears to be on the way up, while Mr Khan and his associates are on the way down. But we should not necessarily expect this to be any more permanent than any other moment in recent political history. Mr Khan and his party may be useful as a stick to keep the new government in line, or even as a back-up option if they prove too recalcitrant in the face of establishment's preferences.

For decades, the total political warfare between the Sharif and the Bhutto dynasties had largely benefitted the military. The truce they reached helped pave the way for the deepening of Pakistan's democracy from 2008 onwards; Mr Khan's chief legacy at this point is the disruption of that truce and the return of military pre-eminence. Perhaps now, having experienced the bitter fruits of such an intervention, he can join the civilian consensus and finally help create the "New Pakistan" that he has promised for so many years.

Published: April 10, 2022, 11:25 AM
Updated: April 13, 2022, 12:26 PM