Imran Khan’s Fate as Pakistani PM Hangs in the Balance

Today much of Pakistan expected Prime Minister Imran Khan to be ousted via a vote of no confidence. Instead, Pakistan’s president dissolved the National Assembly at the direction of Prime Minister Imran Khan in a bid for early elections.

The elections will likely revolve around the economy, foreign policy, accusations of foreign meddling, and tensions between Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and the military establishment. 

Last week, a coalition of opposition parties organized under the umbrella of the Pakistan Democratic Movement launched the no confidence motion against Khan. PDM includes mainstream parties such as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in addition to religious parties such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Pakistan-Fazl (JUI-F). This coalition has expanded to include other parties and politicians frustrated by what they view as mismanagement by the PTI-led government, including rapid inflation. Little unites their platform apart from frustration with Prime Minister Imran Khan. 

It is reported that the PDM coalition possessed nearly 200 votes far exceeding the 172 votes needed to oust Khan and his cabinet through a no confidence vote that was set to be held today. This would have led to either a coalition-led interim government or caretaker government that would have governed Pakistan until scheduled elections in 2023 or snap elections are held. Instead, National Assembly Deputy Speaker Qasim Khan Suri rejected the motion against Khan and declared it in violation of Article 5 of Pakistan’s Constitution which demands loyalty to the state. This followed several days of PTI accusations that the nopposition were traitors. Now early elections should occur within three months.

Pakistan’s President (a position with little direct power) Arif Alvi dissolved the National Assembly at the direction of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Minister of Information Farrukh Habib expressed an intent to hold snap elections within ninety days. This could lead to a constitutional crisis since under Article 58(1) of Pakistan’s Constitution the president cannot dissolve the National Assembly if advised by a prime minister “against whom a notice of a resolution for a vote of no-confidence has been given in the National Assembly but has not been voted upon…” 

This has led the opposition to seek relief from Pakistan’s Supreme Court. PTI may invoke Article 69 of Pakistan’s constitution which states that “[t]he validity of any proceedings in 1 [Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament)] shall not be called in question on the ground of any irregularity of procedure.” But the Supreme Court has held that this prohibition is not absolute.

Either way it is likely that some form of interim government will govern the country until early elections are held and these elections are likely to revolve around foreign policy.

While the dissolution of the National Assembly in contradiction of Article 58(1) opens the door to a constitutional crisis, a successful no confidence vote was not without risk for Pakistan’s democracy. The no confidence vote is a part of Pakistan’s democratic system but its use to shorten the term of a sitting prime minister sets a precedent that will weaken future prime ministers and make them even more beholden to provincial and coalition politics and deter bold policy objectives. It also runs contrary to the aspirational norm of allowing a prime minister to finish their term. However, the dissolution of the National Assembly also renders the mechanism of the no-confidence vote moot and removes a key tool of future opposition coalitions.

The feature of this political fight that has garnered the most attention internationally is Prime Minister Imran Khan’s accusation of political meddling to effect “regime change,” particularly by the United States. The opposition and the United States itself dismisses this as little more than a conspiracy theory based on internal communication between Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States and Islamabad last month. 

Within this context, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa expressed a desire for greater U.S.-Pakistan relations while addressing the Islamabad Security Dialogue and added, “we share a long and excellent strategic relationship with the US which remains our largest export market.” He was also critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This was interpreted by many PTI supporters and opposition parties alike as a snub of PTI’s talking points. 

Pakistani elections rarely focus on foreign policy but this time around will be an exception. But it has raised the specter of “anti-Americanism” as a feature of sloganeering in the upcoming campaign. This should not be exaggerated as criticism of the United States — even genuine anti-Americanism is rarely applied at the individual level and the countries maintain deep people-to-people ties. But it has the potential to chill relations further at a time when a reset and clear policy positions are needed. 

Furthermore, this political upheaval is occuring amid worsening security conditions in Pakistan as it faces attacks by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)IS-K suicide blasts, and Baloch separatist violence. Washington and Islamabad have a shared interest in curtailing worsening security conditions and pushing the Taliban towards more productive governance decisions. It is crucial that the institutions of both countries resist the urge to allow domestic politics to harm these efforts.

This article was originally published in Responsible Statecraft.