A recent motion of no-confidence has raised speculation about whether the country's powerful army, known as the ultimate kingmaker, has lost faith in the embattled prime minister.
The next general election in Pakistan is more than a year away, yet Prime Minister Imran Khan finds himself on a do or die campaign trail. In the last few weeks, he has travelled to different parts of the country to drum up public support for his government.
The cricketer-turned-politician is set to hold a large public gathering in the capital, Islamabad, on March 27.
The venue for the rally, which the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) claims will bring a million people, is the same where Khan, as an opposition leader, staged a 126-day sit-in to seek the ouster of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2014.
Now, as a prime minister, Khan has another good reason to engage in such a show of public strength. His political rivals have moved a no-confidence motion against him in the parliament, threatening to unseat him.
The Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDM), a grouping of the country's opposition parties, wants Imran Khan out. The PDM is made up of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the Pakistan Peoples Party and other smaller groups that Khan has accused of corruption in the past. In turn, the PDM alleges that the PTI government has failed to deliver on promised reforms, pushing Pakistan into deeper economic turmoil.
Khan will have to step down if 172 members of the 342-member National Assembly vote against him on Friday. The chance of that happening is real.
How did Imran Khan reach this point?
Until a few months ago, it was almost unimaginable to see Khan facing a direct threat to his nearly four-year rule. Despite dithering on his promised reforms, he was still poised to become the first prime minister to complete a five-year term in Pakistan’s tumultuous political history.
He came to power in August 2018, riding on a popular appeal to fight corruption and bring change to the lives of ordinary people.
Opposition parties have long accused Khan of being backed by Pakistan’s powerful army. Although the military denies the charge, it has a history of involvement in politics as generals have ruled the country for almost half of its existence, periodically breaking democratic runs. When not in power, the military is known for pulling the strings.
The army is believed to have backed Khan in the hope that his government would undertake reforms and deliver in such a way that traditional political players who have been ruling the country for the last many decades would become irrelevant.
Khan's main political opponents — the PMLN and PPP —have alternated power since 1990, excluding General Musharraf’s military rule between 1999 and 2007. It was only in 2018 when Khan's Tehreek-Insaf or Justice Party broke through the PPP-PMLN hegemony to form a new government.
But delivering on the promise of addressing social inequality and poverty wasn't easy. In the last three and a half years, inflation has remained in the double digits while the average economic growth has sagged at around 3.5 percent. The constant devaluation of the rupee against the US dollar has further compounded problems by making imports expensive.
The sluggish economic growth also means Khan could not deliver on his election promise to create 10 million new jobs. Since 2018, he has made changes to the all-important position of finance minister four times.
Brushing aside the criticism, Khan is adamant his government policies have put the country's economy on the right track. Some of the achievements Khan often cites include an increase in exports and tax revenues, a universal health coverage plan and an initiative to provide a monthly stipend to low-income families to offset the negative fallout of the rising inflation.
Last year, however, Khan reportedly had a falling out with Army Chief General Bajwa over the appointment of the Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s top spy agency.
Sensing the opportunity, opposition parties joined their hands to move a no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister. The parties believe that unlike in the past, this time the army is staying neutral, a view echoed by many political observers.
As the defections shook the government and many began to question the military's role in the country's politics, the Pakistani army reiterated its position, saying it has "nothing to do with politics."
For Khan, however, taking a neutral line in the ongoing political crisis is not acceptable. In one of his recent public gatherings, he said, "only animals are neutral.” In a separate statement, Khan urged the army to dissuade the opposition from moving a no-confidence vote, calling it a battle between "good and evil."
Khan’s position in the parliament is vulnerable. His ruling party didn’t have an absolute majority in the National Assembly after the 2018 polls. PTI had 156 seats, still 16 short of a simple majority to form the government. But thanks to the powers that be, which nudged smaller parties, Khan was able to form the government.
With Khan in trouble, small regional parties—his allies—have now shown an inclination to support the opposition parties.
Khan will have to go home if his allies withdraw support and join the opposition, and if a dozen members of his own party defect and vote in favour of a no-confidence motion.
Since the opposition's challenge to Khan's rule, none of Khan’s allies has openly supported him. In fact, Khan is facing a revolt within his own party. Ahead of the crucial vote of no confidence, at least 14 ruling party members have openly announced their support for the opposition.
The opposition parties combined have 162 seats, and need 10 more to send Khan packing. But the beleaguered Prime Minister insists that those who revolted against the party cannot vote, or their vote will not count when the no-confidence motion is tabled for voting in the National Assembly.
The number game and legalities aside, observers believe the fate of Khan will be determined by how he handles his relationship with the powerful army. If some newspaper reports are to be believed, Khan wanted to name a successor of the current army chief well ahead of his scheduled retirement. The opposition has also accused Khan of sitting on Gen Bajwa's second extension.
Meanwhile, no elected Prime Minister in Pakistan has ever completed their term, which were cut short either by military coups or Supreme Court rulings. In other words, the odds are stacked against Khan. The much anticipated National Assembly session will be convened on March 25 to decide the fate of the incumbent prime minister. Incidentally, Pakistan won the cricket World Cup under Khan’s captaincy on March 25, exactly 30 years ago.
The Pakistani team was on the verge of elimination at the group stages, but Khan fought like a cornered tiger and won the title for the country. Thirty years later, can he fight like a cornered tiger to win a political battle? Whatever the outcome of a no-confidence motion, one thing is certain. Pakistan is heading towards another cycle of political instability.
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