Pakistan Political Turmoil: Is Time Running Out For Imran Khan?

Is time running out for Imran Khan? The speculation is that an interim government headed by PML(N) will step in till fresh elections, but nothing is cast in stone yet.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan

Prime Minister Imran Khan is resorting to threats and intimidation to keep his flock together as members of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are deserting what appears like a sinking ship. Faced with a determined Opposition’s move through a no-confidence motion in the National Assembly to oust the non-performing PTI government, Khan and his team are using all means to cling to power.

The joint Opposition includes parties like Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan People’s Party of former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto respectively and together they have more than 160 seats in the lower house. The PTI had won 155 seats and made up the rest of the numbers with allies from breakaway faction of the PML and other smaller parties. It needs to win 172 votes to defeat the Opposition’s move. But that appears a tough call with allies as well as PTI members moving out.

The attack by PTI stormtroopers on Sindh House in Islamabad to vent their anger against ruling party MPs – around 25 of them ready to switch sides – is a clear indication of the desperation in ruling party circles. A few days back, National Assembly guest houses were raided by the Islamabad police, with lawmakers beaten up in a flagrant violation of rules. As is common across South Asia, police take orders from the party in power and rarely go against orders, however wrong. Prime Minister Khan has used every institution in the government to harass and browbeat political opponents.

Since the no-confidence move was submitted to the National Assembly Secretariat, Imran Khan has gone on the offensive. He has lashed out at opponents, used foul language, blamed everyone including foreign powers for trying to dislodge him and what’s more, he mocked the army when it said it would remain neutral on the no-confidence vote.

Imran Khan met army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa on Friday, though details of their conversation are not known. He may have tried to reach out to General Bajwa in an attempt to cover his back. Much would depend on how the army perceives the current political flux in the country. In fact, the Opposition forces are also meeting in Islamabad today to review the situation.

Who takes over if Imran Khan is out?

Beyond getting Imran Khan to quit as prime minister, not much is known of the Opposition’s plans. Fresh elections will be called sooner rather than later if the no-trust vote against Khan is successful. But who takes over in the interim?

Speculation is that the PML-N’s Shehbaz Sharif could be the interim prime minister. The focus of the government will be on electoral reforms. The mandate of the new government would be confined to reforms which could take a couple of months. Elections will be held after that. There is also a proposal by the PML-N for an interim national government for five years. But nothing has been decided as of now. Nobody is sure how long the army would remain neutral.

Both the leading Opposition parties, PPP and PML, have had issues with the army in the past. The General Headquarters has pulled dislodged Benazir Bhutto as well as Nawaz Sharif at least twice before either could complete their full terms.

The two main Opposition parties often squabble but all sides have now closed ranks against Imran Khan. Unlike the BJP in India which has an overwhelming presence across most of the country, the PTI does not command that kind of overarching presence. The PPP dominates Sindh and the PML has strong roots in Punjab. Both the main parties have strong cadres. In a free and fair elections when the army stays neutral, any of the three main parties – PTI, PML and PPP could come to power. But this is running ahead of the schedule. The Opposition now is focussing on removing Imran Khan. Daggers will be out only after the main task is over.

Imran Khan and the PTI are fighting back tooth and nail. He has gone on the offensive. The PTI has promised to get a million of his supporters to Islamabad in a show of strength. The Opposition parties, which include both the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan’s People Party dominated by the Bhutto-Zardari family, have vowed a counter march. Mariam Sharif and her cousin Hamza, son of Shehbaz Sharif, will be part of the Opposition march. 

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was pushed out of office on charges of corruption, was disliked by the army for trying to assert the powers of the civilian democratically elected government. He was replaced by Khan, who was at that point a favourite of the all-powerful Pakistan army. 

Khan’s troubles began when he fell foul of the army over the appointment of the ISI chief. Though he finally gave in to the army chief’s recommendation, there was an unseemly squabbling which was apparent to all but neither side made any public comments. With the army announcing it would remain neutral, the former cricketer’s fate was sealed. The PTI government has mismanaged the economy, with prices sky-rocketing.