It would seem that with the passing of a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Imran Khan by the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament on April 9 this year and the subsequent election of Shehbaz Sharif to the post, the acute political crisis of the previous two weeks, dubbed the “constitutional” crisis, could have been safely resolved. However, it makes sense to refrain from such conclusions for the time being.
Meanwhile, it should be noted that this is a particularly acute phase of confrontation between two party blocs led by the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (founded by the elder brother of the new Prime Minister, Nawaz) and the Movement for Justice. For the battle between them started almost immediately after the latter’s victory in the last general election, held in the summer of 2018, which resulted in Imran Khan (founder and leader of the Movement for Justice) taking over the government of Pakistan.
In particular, at the end of 2020, Imran Khan was sharply criticized for his visit to Gilgit-Baltistan, which was once part of the Princely State of Kashmir. Meanwhile, India claims possession of all its (former) territory. Khan’s blunt remarks at the time about the futility of such claims led to responses not only from India but also from the Pakistani opposition accusing him of “flirting with Islamist radicals” who were fighting from inside Pakistan for the “rights of Muslims oppressed by Hindus” in the neighboring Indian administrative unit of Jammu and Kashmir. Although something similar could at least be charged against some of the opposition parties.
What mattered in this case, however, was that the claims were not addressed to a “fly-by-night” politician, but to a head of government who is accountable to the country for the possible costs of his own words and deeds, which can be quite concrete and weighty in nature. In particular, the so-called Financial Action Task Force (FATF), citing shortcomings in monitoring the sources of revenue of terrorist groups based in the country, has long kept Pakistan in a grey area. This, in particular, has created certain obstacles to obtaining loans (highly relevant to Pakistan) from international financial institutions.
It is noticeable that almost immediately after Khan’s resignation, he gathered the largest rallies in support of both himself and the demand for early parliamentary elections in Peshawar, i.e. in the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan territory. These public actions are evidence of Khan’s continued popularity in the country. This is a cause for concern for the new government, whose support in parliament is rather shaky because it relies on the votes of a few defectors from the party bloc headed by Imran Khan.
This means that if instead of a vote of no confidence in the (now former) prime minister, his demand for early elections had been granted, it is likely that the party bloc led by the Movement for Justice would have won again. Apparently, therefore, in order to remove a political rival from power, the opposition has chosen to engage in pettifoggery in the interpretation of certain articles of the constitution relating to procedural matters of parliamentary voting.
The continued popularity and public activism of Imran Khan brings a significant element of uncertainty to Pakistan’s current political situation. Although formally the early replacement of the head of government took place legitimately, Khan’s constant statements about the latest political crisis having been provoked by “external forces” (without, however, presenting documentary evidence) do not help to reduce domestic political turbulence either. Pacification is however urgently needed by the new government, which explains Sharif’s call for the preservation of stability in society and rejection of “political revenge” against opponents.
For the time being, however, it is difficult to predict how events will unfold in Pakistan, which, let’s not forget, possesses nuclear weapons. Will Khan refrain from the temptation of returning to power on a wave of popularity, or in other words, to put it neatly, “outside the legal and procedural framework”, or will he stick to the latter scheme? It is worth noting that the next general election is due in a year’s time and if the current popularity of Khan and the political forces he leads persists (or perhaps increases), they will have an opportunity to regain power in a very legitimate manner.
Unless, of course, the all-powerful military establishment does something nasty in the meantime, such as finding some “signs of corruption” in the former premier minister’s activities. This is an almost unfailing and ubiquitous weapon (including in Pakistan) used against political opponents.
In the latter context, it is again relevant to note the almost decisive role of the military in the internal political processes taking place in the country. Naturally, however, the generals reject such accusations. In particular, they say that the military had nothing to do with the emergence, development and conclusion of the recent political crisis.
In relation to this factor, there are two points to be made. First, Pakistan is by no means an exception. Second, this factor cannot be assessed in terms of “good/bad”, as they raise all sorts of qualifying questions. For example, for whom and why.
It should be referred to the current proponents of “all that is good” in the international arena, i.e. democracy, respect for human rights, “established rules”. Incidentally, the aforementioned adherents are in fact also the main international bandits. For them, military control of the situation in Myanmar (looks “bad” because that country is within the PRC’s sphere of influence. The same factor in the case of Pakistan, whose relations with China in recent years have also seemed almost allied, takes on certain positivity. For, in instigating the replacement of government, the Pakistani generals allegedly proceeded on the grounds that Khan (whom they had brought to power four years earlier) had “gone too far” on a path that was taking their country farther away from the US.
This explains the frequent media speculation that with the change of government “the pendulum of Pakistani foreign policy will swing sharply towards the US.” Nothing in this world can be ruled out, but so far there has been no visible movement by Islamabad towards Washington. Because rapprochement with the PRC, and more recently with Russia (which has apparently upset Washington completely), is in Pakistan’s core interests and not at all the whim of one politician or the other.
In this regard, it is notable that the first foreign ambassador that Sharif received was China’s Chargé d’Affaires a.i. in Pakistan. During the meeting, the new prime minister reiterated all the key messages that had previously been addressed by Islamabad to Beijing. In particular, there was talk of Pakistan maintaining an “iron-clad” course in its relations with the PRC. It also referred to the continuation of a key project in bilateral relations, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which will connect the western parts of the PRC with the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. This will provide Pakistan with a much-needed network of transport highways and industrial and power generation facilities. China, on the other hand, will secure access to the Indian Ocean, bypassing the vulnerable Strait of Malacca.
However, it is too early to say what will actually happen in the foreign policy of Pakistan’s new leadership.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.