Between populism and dynasty: Pakistan's political crisis is no win for democracy
Pakistan’s politics have always been an extremely charged affair, and the last few weeks have only added more fuel to the fire.
After the recently ousted prime minister Imran Khan warned of US involvement in the regime change operation — where the US threatened to ‘isolate’ Pakistan if he remains in power — many are left debating whether Khan is an anti-imperialist hero whose name will go down in history, or merely a megalomaniac who can’t accept his unfortunate political fate.
On the surface, the opposition’s reason for pushing for the vote of no confidence (VONC) through parliamentary procedures was because Khan’s government had failed to deliver on key promises to the Pakistani people, including poor governance and a failure to tackle corruption, skyrocketing inflation, security issues and more.
This coalition of dynastic opposition parties, known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) was created in 2020, but the push for VONC came much later when PDM noticed the clear tensions between Khan and the ‘establishment’ that is credited with bringing him to power.
"The military, which has always played a key role in Pakistan’s politics, and the judiciary are both now facing backlash from Khan’s supporters"
The military, which has always played a key role in Pakistan’s politics, and the judiciary are both now facing backlash from Khan’s supporters. After Khan initially blocked the VONC against him, the judiciary, in a bizarre turn of events, worked overtime to overturn his play and ensure that the vote took place.
On the day that the vote finally went through, Islamabad High Court stayed open past 11 pm, and issued a statement that claimed that the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) had requested that the court ensure the rulings from April 7th are implemented.
The supreme court’s ruling to nullify the decision by Khan and the speaker of the National Assembly (NA) to deny the VONC based on Article 5 of the constitution caused great anguish for Khan’s supporters, but at the same time was celebrated as a ‘constitutional win’ by the progressive left along with supporters of the new prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, who were now celebrating the Sharif family’s return to power.
In this mishmash of events, it was almost impossible to separate the two very distinct groups of people, and this was a welcome opportunity for the Sharif and Zardari supporters to appear as flag bearers of constitutional supremacy.
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At the same time that Sharif comes into power and gives a grandiloquent speech about the country’s future, there is an observable silence from critics, while some even go on to celebrate what they refer to as a ‘welcome change'.
Khan continues to stick to his narrative of “foreign interference” in the country’s internal matters, and the ex-opposition coalition tries to maintain their public support by preaching about constitutional integrity and democratic procedures through which they managed to oust the ex-PM.
To further confuse the public, in a press conference last week, the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media office, stated that the letter that Khan cited in claiming foreign interference does indeed include information about foreign involvement. The director of the ISPR clarified that there was no mention of a “conspiracy”, but only “undiplomatic language” and signs of “interference”.
Given additional credence to the theory, the press release of the national security council meeting states that “the communication amounted to blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan by the country in question.” While no country was mentioned by name, the reference was clearly being made to the US, which hasn't taken kindly to Khan’s visit to Russia, and the relationship he maintained with Moscow despite the invasion of Ukraine.
The long-running debate has now boiled down to semantics and interpretation. The coalition government rejoices that their names have been cleared, while Khan’s supporters also count this as a victory claiming ‘blatant interference’ and ‘conspiracy’ are two sides of the same coin. Calling it a conspiracy may be far-fetched, but it seems likely that Washington declared its strong preference for a regime change.
Still, Imran Khan is no anti-imperialist leader or revolutionary.
Instead, his authoritarian and conservative politics along with the neoliberal model he succumbed to — after promising an Islamic welfare state and a strict ban on IMF loans — make him anything but that.
At the same time, it would be reductive to conclude that because he relies on the entity that brought him to power, and the obvious internal political contradictions, the US did not have a hand in furthering his political demise.
Denying the US involvement is akin to giving the imperialist nation another free pass for its ongoing interference in Pakistan’s domestic and foreign affairs. In Pakistani politics, where so many contradictions already coexist, space should be made for one more.
"Still, Imran Khan is no anti-imperialist leader or revolutionary. Instead, his authoritarian and conservative politics along with the neoliberal model he succumbed to — after promising an Islamic welfare state and a strict ban on IMF loans — make him anything but that"
Despite the many reneged promises, Khan’s government should be commended for introducing a free healthcare scheme in Punjab, opening up homeless shelters, and implementing a social protection and poverty alleviation programme under the name of ‘Ehsaas’.One can also argue that the ousted PM’s stance against the US-led War on Terror, and a relationship built on equal footing has remained consistent throughout his tenure.
That still doesn't excuse Khan’s silence on enforced disappearances, his misplaced priorities when dealing with minorities, and a compromise on personal principle to win political favour from rightwing groups and the establishment.
However, the dynastic parties that have now taken the reins of the country are not better alternatives that should be celebrated: the Sharifs’ and Zardari’s past terms have been less than successful in keeping the US at arm’s length, and with the ushering in of this new era, Pakistan could see itself become a pawn in CIA’s war yet again.
Some rightly say that an anti-imperialism divorced from an anti-capitalist class struggle is just a hollow narrative that allows for hyper-nationalistic sentiments. Simultaneously, I would argue that in a developing country like Pakistan, denying Washington’s interference to legitimise Khan’s ousting as a democratic, and purely internal affair, would not bode well for us if history is any indicator. To expect a textbook anti-imperialist struggle, where all else aligns to bring about a revolution, is rooted in idealistic naivety.
Khan’s reactionary politics were more than enough excuse for the establishment to firmly step into the political arena once again, and hand the reins to those that are more ‘diplomatic’ in their approach. Whether it's simply the intelligence agencies who continue to pull the strings, or whether Western imperialist nations are also making their demands, one thing is clear: this is no win for democracy.
He may not have a moral or political stance to champion an anti-imperialist struggle, but a sizable percentage of the population that was already being fed an anti-West narrative has gobbled up Khan’s call to bring inqilaab (revolution) over these accusations. The current public sentiment is informed by one of the two: blinding hate or blinding loyalty, both of which risk further division in an already polarised society.
At the end of the day my solidarity lies with my people, who are stuck in an impossible predicament: choosing between a populist politician who is using a delicate and unstable situation to further his hero stature, or dynastic politicians with charges of corruption who, only days after coming into office, closed down government subsidised soup kitchens on the same day that journalists were invited to the PM’s house for an elaborate feast.
The one true victim in these political games remains the socially and economically vulnerable, who continue to be disregarded by politicians, and used as part of their rhetoric only when it suits them.
Ifra Javed is a London School of Economics graduate, currently working as a researcher and lecturer at the Lahore School of Economics.
Follow her on Twitter: @Ifra_J
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