By Ali Aun
While it was the first time ever in Pakistan’s history that a prime minister was removed through a vote of no-confidence, possibly signaling a strengthening of democratic institutions, it created a massive wave of public unrest expressed through outrage on social media as well as historically huge public protests on the streets. So why exactly is a democratic move being seen with such skepticism among the public in a country which has spent almost half of its history under military dictatorships and how will it impact the diplomatic relations of the new government is what I will try to analyze in this article.
On April 25, 2022, it was reported that the “hashtag #امپورٹڈ_حکومت_نامنظور maybe the biggest trend ever analyzed in Tweet Binder. 106,433,419 tweets!!” The phrase, originally in Urdu language, literally translates to “Imported Government Unacceptable”. It started trending after there was a change of government in Pakistan on April 11, 2022, wherein Shehbaz Sharif got elected as the new prime minister, a day after Imran Khan lost a vote of no-confidence in the Parliament. While it was the first time ever in the country’s history that a prime minister was removed through a vote of no-confidence, possibly signaling a strengthening of democratic institutions, it created a massive wave of public unrest expressed through outrage on social media as well as historically huge public protests on the streets. So why exactly is a democratic move being seen with such skepticism among the public in a country which has spent almost half of its history under military dictatorships and how it will impact the diplomatic relations of the new government is what I will try to analyze in this article.
Way before the ousted prime minister Khan had managed to come into power, he had started to gain huge crowds around him through his anti-elite rhetoric against the political dynasties in Pakistan, i.e. the Bhutto family and the Sharif family, bringing the issue of corruption to public salience. After 22 years of political struggle, his party namely Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) finally emerged as the biggest parliamentary party in the general elections of 2018. Khan was then widely seen as an outsider alternative to the conventional corrupt politicians. In its initial days, Khan’s coalition government was not seen as very strong as the opposition still had a lot of public support to mobilize against him. The opposition parties formed an alliance against him namely the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) which accused Khan of using the military’s support to steal the public mandate to form the government. While Khan seemed committed to cracking down on the political elites during his rule, the PDM, rather than focusing on corruption as an issue, gathered crowds by bringing the issue of military intervention into politics to the public salience. The Tom and Jerry banter continued up until the climax in 2022, when the alliance of the opposition parties filed a motion of no-confidence against Khan on March 8, 2022. This is what was to unfold a constitutional crisis in the country over the next one month until he was finally ousted on April 10, 2022.
PDM seemed to be dominating power politics by successfully convincing many of Khan’s allies to change their stance and vote him out. Expecting to lose power, Khan brought a diplomatic cable to the public which he claimed was received from the Pakistani ambassador in the United States on March 7, just one day before the motion for no-confidence was filed. While the contents of the letter were kept confidential, it was claimed that the letter had explicit reference to the motion of no-confidence and the US desire for it to succeed. It was sent after the ambassador’s meeting with Donald Lu, a US diplomat. The fact that the letter referred to the motion of no-confidence before it was even presented in the Parliament is what Khan started using to portray it as a US-sponsored conspiracy against him.
Using the letter as a base, the deputy speaker of the national assembly dismissed the no-confidence motion declaring it a foreign conspiracy after which the Assembly was dissolved in a few minutes and Khan announced new general elections in 90 days. This proves that the main concern for Khan was not about losing power, rather he did not want his opponents to come to power at a time when his popularity was skyrocketing as he presented himself as a nationalist leader who was pursuing an independent foreign policy. He was eager on conducting early elections as he had successfully managed to sway public salience away from the inflation-hit economy towards the foreign policy where he had loads of events to brag on, including hosting the OIC foreign ministers conference in Islamabad, The UN General Assembly’s adoption of a Pakistan sponsored resolution on combatting Islamophobia, and Khan’s visit to Russia signaling an improvement of ties which had remained strained since the cold war.
On the other hand, the opposition was not happy with the idea of early elections despite getting rid of Khan and challenged the dismissal of the no-confidence motion in the Supreme Court which did declare it unconstitutional and restored the assembly. After voting Khan out, the PDM leaders expressed that they wanted to introduce electoral reforms before proceeding to new elections. The reforms are expected to hit Khan’s party negatively in the upcoming elections which is also possibly another reason why he was so eager to dissolve the assembly in the first place.
Immediately after his ouster, Khan staged massive protests building the narrative that he was punished by the US, branding the new government as “imported”. He has been calling for immediate elections to let the people decide who they really want them to rule. However, when the spokesperson of Pakistan’s military was asked to comment on the matter, he did agree that there was a case of “foreign intervention” but he did not agree that there was any evidence for “conspiracy” based on the investigations carried out by the intelligence agencies. However, it was never clarified what they considered the difference between conspiracy and intervention was. This confusion has been used by Khan and his supporters to claim that their argument still stands. Since then, he has managed to gather millions of people on the streets to demand immediate new elections.
The question now is how the diplomatic relations between the new government and the US will evolve. Improving the economic conditions would be necessary for them to compete against Khan’s rhetoric in the new elections. However, better relations with the west would be necessary if they were to establish investors’ confidence. Improving the relationship with the US just when the National Security Committee has acknowledged a foreign intervention from the US into Pakistan’s domestic politics will hurt their standing in the next elections. Even if Sharif does manage to improve the state of the economy, he will also have to bring back economic issues to public salience rather than foreign policy, for which he will have to compete with Khan’s fiery speeches to attract the public.
Another issue with regards to diplomacy which arose out of the entire situation is the future of diplomatic cables for Pakistan’s policymaking. Diplomatic cables are means for every country’s department for foreign affairs to have confidential communication with their representatives and understand their candid opinions about the country’s allies and enemies. Seeing the politicians using those diplomatic cables for political gains will reserve the diplomats in their opinions, especially after observing how WikiLeaks, in which US diplomatic cables got exposed, created a diplomatic crisis in the past. A fear that the confidential information in the cables may come out may prevent the diplomats from giving their honest opinions which can possibly have long-lasting consequences for Pakistan’s policymaking on foreign affairs and a lesson to learn for incumbents in other countries as well.