'A constitutional crisis': What's behind Pakistan's political turmoil?
For a few weeks now, the political temperature in Pakistan has been running high. On Sunday, the nation was pushed to the brink of a constitutional crisis after prime minister Imran Khan dissolved parliament in order to prevent a vote of no-confidence that would have likely removed him.
It all started with rumours that the parliamentary opposition had gathered nearly 200 votes in the National Assembly, giving it a clear majority and well over the 172 votes needed to topple the Khan administration.
Now, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party is facing the biggest challenge to its rule since being elected in 2018 after several members of the ruling coalition, disgruntled with the ruling party, joined the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to vote Khan out.
Then, in a decisive stroke, one of the administration’s main allies, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), added its weight. Suspecting foul play, all defecting parliamentarians were called “traitors”.
"Khan was elected on promises to tackle official corruption, but recent months have seen his popularity dwindle amid skyrocketing inflation and security concerns"
Sharing what may have happened behind the scenes, Zeeshan Shah, a political observer and financial analyst in Washington told The New Arab that, “Many political parties usually get a wink and a nod from the establishment with regards to making decisions such as supporting or opposing the government.”
However, he said, “In this instance I believe it was a combination of two factors. One, it was Imran Khan’s lack of indulging and effectively managing his coalition partners through carrots, and two, there was no clear sign from the establishment which way they should go hence they felt the combined opposition was giving them a better deal which led them to abandoning the government.”
Shehbaz Sharif, leader of the opposition, said that the PM, “has lost the confidence of the majority of the members of the National Assembly of Pakistan, therefore, he should cease to hold office.”
Khan was elected on promises to tackle official corruption, but recent months have seen his popularity dwindle amid skyrocketing inflation and security concerns. He is far from the first leader of Pakistan to face such a crisis: since independence in 1947, no prime minister has succeeded in finishing a full term.
With the MQM joining the opposition, Khan’s options seemed bleak. But the prime minister still had cards to play, calling on the deputy speaker of parliament, a member of PTI, to throw out the no-confidence motion and convincing the president to dissolve parliament and call for snap elections.
Before the no-confidence motion, Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed a large rally of his supporters in Islamabad. He claimed that the no-confidence vote was part of a “foreign-funded conspiracy” to remove him from power and institute “regime change” because of his refusal to side with the West on Ukraine and recent visit to Moscow.
Waving what he called a threatening letter from a US official, he said that the Pakistani authorities had been warned by Washington that they must remove him or face dire consequences.
In response, the US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that Washington was “closely following developments in Pakistan” and supported its constitutional process but there was no truth in the PM’s allegations.
After this episode, former US military chief Mike Mullen said in an interview, “I think we have clearly distanced ourselves from Pakistan over the last decade and Pakistan has more and more fallen under the umbrella of China,” indicating that relations between the two countries are not currently on an upward trajectory.
However, Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Bajwa addressing the Islamabad Security Dialogue recently stated , “we share a long and excellent strategic relationship with the US which remains our largest export market.”
The No-Confidence Motion
On the appointed date, voting never began. Instead, the no-confidence motion was cancelled on the basis that the opposition were tabling it with bad intentions, and at the behest of foreign powers.
Soon after, the president dissolved the assembly on the PM’s direction, resulting in a constitutional crisis. Under Pakistan’s constitution, under Article 58 (1), it is prohibited to take such actions after a no-confidence motion has been called but not yet voted upon.
Discussing the implications with The New Arab, Dr Ahsan Rajput, a jurist and fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre of International Law at the University of Cambridge, said that, “the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, while rejecting the no-trust motion against the PM citing Article 5 of the Constitution, has triggered a political and constitutional crisis in the country.”
“Once the ‘leave to the motion’ had been granted on 8th March by the speaker, it can’t be rejected in this manner now, and the motion should have been tabled for voting of the house only.”
For now, an interim PM is being nominated and a caretaker government is expected to hold elections in 90 days.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is looking into the political turmoil and hearings are in progress. Though Article 69 of Pakistan’s constitution states that parliament proceedings cannot be overruled by the court, there may be options.
“With this political and constitutional chaos in place, the Supreme Court has immediately taken notice and has restrained the parties from any further unconstitutional move. It could take the matter of Mr. Jamali’s dissolution of the Balochistan assembly as a previous precedent, wherein assemblies were restored and the move was declared void and ab-initio,” Rajput said.
“It now depends on the interpretation of the current Supreme Court of Pakistan and how judges overlook the whole political and constitutional crisis,” he added.
Shah believes that the elections scheduled to take place within three months will provide clarity as to the political inclinations of the country.
“Early elections would be the only way out of the current situation. The question is a matter of timing. Do you want an election in July during summer and Hajj season, assuming the Supreme Court upholds the Assembly’s dissolution, or do you want one towards the end of the year early next year which could happen if the vote of no confidence motion is upheld by the Court, and the new government basically governs until it can appoint a new army chief [as the current army chief will retire in November]?” Shah said.
"The government has tried to sabotage the very essence of democracy and the constitutional provisions which deal with transfer of power"
According to some critics, the ruling party may need a sympathy vote, as it had not been able to fix the economy and rising inflation had created unrest in the masses. Currently, the public has become increasingly polarised, with each side blaming the other for the mess.
“The government has tried to sabotage the very essence of democracy and the constitutional provisions which deal with transfer of power,” said Zubair Faisal Abbasi, an independent public policy specialist.
“Our constitution and National Assembly rules of business are clear and there is no ambiguity or any exception in dealing with any no-confidence motion. Pakistan’s ruling junta must relearn that the majority has an inalienable right to govern. No one can snatch this right from anyone,” he added.
Abbasi stressed the importance of fair elections to resolve the political turmoil in the country.
“Elections are the most important component of a democratic system. These have to be free and fair and every action that can potentially impact election outcomes must be transparent and go through consultative processes and political scrutiny.”
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer, and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi