Pakistan's political crisis: An uncertain future ahead
Following the ousting of now-former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan in a vote of no confidence earlier this month by a coalition of opposition parties, and the mass resignation of parliamentary members from his party, all eyes in Pakistan and beyond are now focused on what happens next.
There is consensus among all the major political parties that general elections should be held in the near future, but many hold contrasting views on the “election laws”.
For now, the newly elected prime minister Shehbaz Sharif faces the momentous task of managing a fragile alliance of competing parties while restoring some semblance of political stability.
Between now and the general elections scheduled for August 2023 it remains to be seen whether Khan will continue with his confrontational politics outside of parliament or whether he will cooperate with the opposition to implement election reforms.
While some critics argue that Khan is now part of history, many analysts believe he could come back to power.
“The scenes being played out on the streets of Pakistan, which have shown formidable support for Imran Khan, show that millions of Pakistanis at home and abroad have turned their backs on the dynastic rule of the Sharifs and Bhuttos,” said Abdul-Bashid Shaikh, a teaching fellow in Islamic Studies at the University of Leeds.
The new prime minister and Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, expected to be appointed as foreign minister, both come from political dynasties that have held power for decades in Pakistan.
"While some critics argue that Khan is now part of history, many analysts believe he could come back to power"
Project Imran Khan
Khan’s opponents often labelled him as a 'selected' and a 'planted' prime minister backed by the country’s powerful 'establishment', a reference to Pakistan’s political elite and military powers.
The leadership of Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), have repeatedly confessed in public to having the army’s backing, an institution that is supposed to be neutral by law but in reality has hardly ever stayed out of power.
“Even a common man on the street knows that a government functions as long as the establishment will support it. In the case of Imran Khan, the moment they withdrew their support the government fell like a house of cards,” explained Professor Tahir Malik from NUML University in Islamabad.
Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician, was seen as a pious, moderate Muslim who promised change and a 'new Pakistan' that would take on corruption and the political establishment.
But many saw his rhetoric of dignity, honour, equality, freedom and justice as sharply contrasting with his failure to deliver on key election promises, with economic and security issues dominating his time in office.
Many of Khan’s followers equate him with Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Muhammed Iqbal, the founding fathers of Pakistan, and often present him as the Muslim world’s hero and an anti-imperialist figure who stood up to Western powers.
But with little experience in politics, Khan miscalculated the challenges faced by the dying economy, misread young Pakistanis' aspirations, and failed to appoint competent ministers. His leadership was also characterised by notable claims of election controversy and corruption.
Despite his charisma, in the end his policy failings, bad decisions, and inability to deliver on key promises eventually led to his downfall.
The letter conspiracy and regime change
As part of his final attempt to dodge the no-confidence vote against him, Khan had claimed that his removal was part of a ploy by foreign powers to restructure Pakistani politics, and cited an alleged letter from US officials asking for his removal. The National Security Council has expressed concern over foreign interference but discredited the conspiracy theory.
Even after his removal, Khan has continued to try and convince the Pakistani people that opposition parties have secretly liaised with a foreign power to overthrow his government. Pakistani political analyst and columnist Orya Maqbool Jan said that he believes the Pakistani army supported the “no-confidence vote” against Khan’s government.
“Imran Khan is making a mountain out of a molehill. There is nothing risky, serious, or threatening in that correspondence and these types of communications take place routinely,” explained defence analyst and retired lieutenant general Talat Masood to The New Arab, adding that the pretext of 'conspiracy' and 'regime change' have little credibility.
Khan’s strongest source of power - support from the army - is therefore no more, as the political establishment has turned against him. As such, Pakistan’s army chief recently condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, going against Khan’s neutral position. In turn, the US reassured Islamabad that Pakistan is an important partner.
"The scenes being played out on the streets of Pakistan, which have shown formidable support for Imran Khan, show that millions of Pakistanis at home and abroad have turned their backs on the dynastic rule of the Sharifs and Bhuttos"
Fanning anti-US sentiment
Anti-Western sentiment remains a popular global discourse to boost public support, prolong power, and shift governance failures onto the US and the West.
In a bid to save his political future, Khan has been using anti-US discourse to mobilise his supporters and the Pakistani public, claiming that US officials and the American Jewish lobby were behind the opposition parties that toppled his government.
US interventions in Pakistan’s state of affairs are by no means new; in fact, almost every Pakistani government has seen US interference, from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Zia-ul-Haq and even Benazir Bhutto.
However, Khan has not provided a concrete explanation for why the US felt the need to topple Khan’s government. Looking at his cabinet ministers, advisors, and heads of top financial institutions, many notable figures are American and British nationals, namely, Shahbaz Gill, Moeed Yusuf, Zulfi Bukhari, and Ishrat Hussain.
“Throughout his politics, Khan has used Islam, nationalism, and foreign conspiracy to mobilise his followers on the streets. The problem with Khan and his party is that they have a populist and anarchist narrative and they don’t believe in the constitution or democratic system,” Malik said.
Sleepwalking towards a divided society
At the crux of Khan and the PTI’s political campaigns is a binary of the good “us” versus the bad “them”.
Correspondingly, the PTI’s overwhelming use of religious slogans like 'the concept of doing good, forbidding evil' serves Khan’s purpose of declaring his opponents as the 'bad guys'. Now, Khan employs similar rhetoric when claiming that he was deposed as part of a foreign plot.
Khan’s rhetoric has already fanned the flames of division and partisanship, exacerbating an already fragile and fragmented political landscape. Twitter trends show ordinary Pakistanis are engaged in political conversations using inflammatory phrases such as “war will continue”, “traitors” and “imported government”.
"Khan has taken politics to such a level that anyone in the opposing camp is termed as a 'traitor', 'foreign agent', and 'envelope journalist' because they hold a different political orientation than the PTI"
Khan has taken politics to such a level that anyone in the opposing camp is termed as a “traitor”, “foreign agent”, and “envelope journalist” because they hold a different political orientation than the PTI.
“Khan is doing confrontational politics that will be on the streets, it’s a sad situation, and we are hoping to see maturity on both sides. If politics continues on the streets eventually it will affect the economy. We need peace and stability,” Masood said.
Arguably, Pakistan is at the crossroads of an internal rift. As the political crisis continues, the consequences of inflammatory political speech for both the country and the diaspora remain to be seen.
Dr Irfan Raja is a British-Pakistani academic, political analyst, and campaigner who holds an MA in International Journalism from the University of Leeds and a PhD from the University of Huddersfield.
Follow him on Twitter: @LeedsUni7