For a country mired in dynasty politics and political fiefdoms, Pakistan’s 2018 general elections came as a welcome break to the masses when Imran Khan, a cosmopolitan cricket legend took the office of Prime Minister. Nearly 4 years on, he was removed from office in a vote of no confidence amidst a constitutional crisis instigated by him, another in a long list of Prime Ministers who never completed their term in Pakistan.
What did Khan represent for Pakistan? How did his tenure play out? And what does this crisis spell for democracy in a country struggling to hold on to it?
The Rise of Khan
Imran Khan posited himself as Pakistan’s knight-in-shining-armor, the savior who came to rescue Pakistan from the depths of corruption and incompetent governance. For one, he did not belong to either the Bhutto family or the Sharif one, the two dynasties prevailing over mainstream politics. Secondly, and representing a clear break from the mainstream, he based his entire platform on bringing about a naya (new) Pakistan.
Through his popular, yet vague, campaign promises for accountability against corruption, social justice, and a ‘new’ Pakistan, Khan accrued massive celebrity amongst the people. He was a trailblazer, a reformist, a new hope for the starved masses — as populist politicians often tend to be.
When he came into office on 8 August 2018, Khan delivered one of the most convincing and earnest addresses a Prime Minister might ever have delivered. Unfortunately, it was mostly downhill from there. To his benefit, Khan was not entirely incompetent: he did introduce the most sweeping social welfare reforms the country has ever seen in the healthcare sector through the introduction of universal healthcare. He also introduced a $700 million subsidy
programme program to alleviate the financial burden of rising inflation on the poor.
However, Khan also presided over a Pakistan that was marred by widespread press and activist censorship, a murky relationship with the military, who many believe to have instated him in power, and rapidly rising inflation. In fact, it was the economic issues that culminated in his removal: the consumer price index in January stood at 13 percent, which, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics was the highest it had been in two years. Most importantly, he failed to address the structural issues within the economy, continuing instead a cycle instigated by previous PMs of bailouts and import reliance, which spelled disaster for the country’s already-rickety balance of payments. As one economist, Kaiser Bengali, put it, no Prime Minister in Pakistan’s history managed its finances as incompetently as Khan.
The Fall of Khan
Seizing the unrest of the general public, the opposition called a motion of no-confidence against Khan for failing to address economic issues. On 3rd April, this motion was dismissed by the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly due to alleged foreign intervention. The same day, Khan announced that he had instructed the President to dismiss the National Assembly, which he complied with. This was the final nail in Khan’s coffin: the Supreme Court took a suo motu notice of the issue and declared it unconstitutional 4 days later. On the 9th of April, the National Assembly reconvened and on the 10th, Khan was removed from office in a vote of no confidence, the first Pakistani Prime Minister to face the fate.
As journalist Hamid Mir once put it, long before the constitutional crisis even transpired, “General Zia was a dictator, General Musharraf was a dictator, but Imran Khan is a democratically elected prime minister. If he is behaving like Zia and Musharraf it is more painful. We cannot compare dictatorship with democracy.”
A Win for Democracy?
While the removal of Khan was a democratically-instigated process and a clear win for constitutional supremacy, the sad fact remains that no Pakistani Prime Minister has ever made it to the end of their five-year term. Furthermore, Khan’s successor Shehbaz Sharif does represent, in many ways, a return to the ‘old’ Pakistan. A member of one of the political dynasties of Pakistan and currently embroiled in a money laundering case, Sharif’s background doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Furthermore, the role of the military establishment in this episode can’t be ignored: while they may have helped to put Khan in power, it was becoming increasingly apparent that they were becoming less fond of their puppet, which may or may not have allowed these events to transpire. This represents a familiar pattern in the turning of Pakistan’s political cogs: the military instates a party of its fancy, a falling-out occurs, and a new candidate is somehow ushered into power.
Notwithstanding the respectability of Sharif or the involvement of the military, the one thing that is apparent from this unfortunate episode is that Pakistan still has a long road ahead in achieving political or economic stability or even in calling itself a true democracy.