Pakistan’s constitutional crisis could lead to military rule
4 Apr 2022|

Pakistan is in the midst of a major political and constitutional crisis. A no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan, which was expected to garner a majority of votes, was thrown out on 3 April by the deputy speaker of the National Assembly as ‘unconstitutional’. The reason cited was the presumed existence of a ‘foreign conspiracy’, of which the no-confidence motion was considered a part, to overthrow the elected government.

The evidence for this argument was provided by a communication from Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington to the Pakistan government about a meeting with US government officials on 7 March, a day before the opposition moved the no-confidence resolution in the National Assembly. The information minister declared in the House: ‘We were told that relations with Pakistan were dependent on the success of the no-confidence motion. We were told that if the motion fails, then Pakistan’s path would be very difficult. This is an operation for a regime change by a foreign government’.

Following the dismissal of the no-confidence motion, President Arif Alvi, on Khan’s advice, dissolved the National Assembly, thus triggering the constitutional provision that elections must be held within 90 days. The chief justice of Pakistan has taken suo moto notice of the situation, and the supreme court has been convened to address the constitutionality of the dismissal of the motion and of the advice by a prime minister facing such a motion for the dissolution of the National Assembly.

Regardless of the court’s decision on the issue, the twin actions by the speaker and the president have created a major constitutional crisis that opens the way for the military to once again assume power in Pakistan.

Despite the military’s presumed unwillingness to take direct control of the country, it had become increasingly clear in recent months that it wanted to remove Khan after having engineered his election in 2018. The military brass had become increasingly disillusioned with Khan because of his non-performance, especially in the economic arena, and because of differences over major issues of foreign policy, especially regarding relations with the US and Islamabad’s stand on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This was made evident in a speech given by Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa a day before the vote on the no-confidence motion.

By signalling its displeasure with Khan over the past few months, the military emboldened the opposition and encouraged parties allied with Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, to desert him, thus depriving him of a majority in the National Assembly. The amount of horse-trading and shifting of loyalties that preceded the vote was mind-boggling even for Pakistan, which is much used to such shenanigans.

Chronic political instability in Pakistan works in favour of the institutional interests of the military and the personal interests of its leaders. It allows the military to assume direct power if it so wishes by arguing that it is the only institution capable of providing decent governance. Alternatively, it provides the military the opportunity to act as the real power behind the throne even when civilian governments are in office. The military has repeatedly unseated prime ministers who have shown indications of acting independently of its diktats.

The current situation has been made more poignant by the fact that Khan, a former world-class cricketer, was helped by the military to attain office just four years ago when it pressured several opposition politicians into deserting their parties before elections or into joining Khan’s PTI in a coalition after the elections. This is the reason Khan is commonly referred to in Pakistan as the ‘selected’ rather than the ‘elected’ prime minister.

However, in the past few months he has had a dramatic falling out with the military brass on several issues, including appointments of senior officers in the army, especially the head of Inter-Services Intelligence; the extension of the tenure of General Bajwa as chief of army staff; important foreign policy issues such as Pakistan’s relations with the US; and his stand on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Khan has accused Washington of engineering his downfall because of his independent foreign policy stance, Bajwa has emphasised the importance of Pakistan’s strategic and economic relationship with the US.

Moreover, Khan’s populist rhetoric combining religious and nationalist symbols seems to have scared the military high command since it can potentially be used to challenge the military’s domination of the country’s polity. Given Khan’s oratorical skills and the fund of goodwill he possesses among the populace from his cricketing days and his attempt at carving out an independent foreign policy for Pakistan, the military leadership is apprehensive that he might be able to return to power despite its opposition hidden behind the cloak of ‘neutrality’. In that case a real civil–military clash may well be on the cards.

All these considerations may once again persuade the military to assume power directly as it did in 1958, 1977 and 1999 as the ‘saviour of the country’ and ‘guardian of constitutional government’. If this comes to pass, the supreme court can be expected to declare such a move ‘constitutional’ in light of the ‘doctrine of necessity’ as it has done in the past. Given the perilous economic situation and the level of political mobilisation in Pakistan in favour of Khan, it will not be an appealing choice for the military, but Khan’s latest bold moves may have left the top brass with little choice.