The parliamentary no-confidence vote for Imran Khan last Sunday (174 votes out of 342 seats) saw tens of thousands of his supporters protesting against his dethronement, invading the country from Islamabad to Peshawar (where Imran has his electoral base) and taking to the streets to defend a leader defined as a populist but who must be liked by most of the people since it was he, who, by putting public finances at risk, chose to subsidise primary goods in an attempt to cool the dizzying rise in prices caused by the economic crisis that has engulfed Pakistan in recent months.
The replacement, pending new elections, has returned to government – with the appointment of Shehbaz Sharif – the Muslim League (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif, the three-time premier later sentenced to 10 years in jail and banned from public office whose party had dominated the political scene for decades and that just the rise of Khan in 2018 had cornered the People’s Party (PPP) of the Bhutto family: he had beaten the very candidates Shehbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (Benazir’s son).
Scorned and though always at loggerheads with each other, the two losers coalesced and managed to co-opt even people from his own party and government allies. The 174 votes of no-confidence are the same, not surprisingly, that elected Nawaz’s younger brother Shehbaz yesterday. He is Pakistan’s 23rd premier. Elections are a long way off (August 2023) and so the interim government is likely to be in place for over a year. That’s a year to keep up with what remains of the Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – Imran’s party – which certainly doesn’t seem to want to let go.
For Imran Khan, this is a new record: he is the first Pakistani premier to be ousted from his seat by a vote of no confidence. To oppose him, he had tried everything, initially succeeding in standing up to the opposition, revealing among other things the hypothesis – denied by Washington – of an American intervention. But on Sunday came the showdown, blessed by the Supreme Court. The accusations against him mainly concern the economy, the poor performance of a country that, under his mandate, has only impoverished itself, burning reserves with populist policies. He is also accused of having personalised foreign policy too much and of not having been able to stand up to India on the Kashmir issue. The military, it is said – his first hour sponsors – have abandoned him. This was also due to disagreements over appointments to the army and the services.
Imran Khan certainly has his dark sides and an agenda of defeats (tensions with Afghanistan and a failed truce with the Pakistani Taliban) but he had given hope to the pariahs by antagonizing the rich and the urban middle classes. In foreign policy he has remained close to China but has also moved closer to Moscow, while he has always criticised Washington and its war on terror. The US, supporters say, has not forgiven him for his meeting with Putin on 24 February, the day of the invasion of Ukraine.
For external observers, this crisis seems to be the mirror of an immobile reality where it’s always the same people pulling the strings of the country: the party of the Punjabi Sharif clan, the military and, in the background, the Sindh Bhutto family. These are rusty and stainless dynasties that Imran Khan gave a shot in the arm. He deserves credit for having cooled down yet another possible war with India in 2019 and it should be considered how much Covid19 cost Pakistan, in a country that is the fifth largest in the world by population.
Cover Image: Imran Khan in a photo by LSE, 2011