TIPP Insights: Pakistan’s floundering democracy

Screengrab: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan

By tippinsights Editorial Board, TIPP Insights

Pakistan faces yet another political crisis, as it invariably seems to do with every elected leader. The fate of its twenty-second government hangs in the balance.

To ward off a no-confidence motion against his government, Prime Minister Imran Khan got the Deputy Speaker of Parliament (a member of his political party) to dissolve the National Assembly, the country’s lower house of Parliament. Terming the motion as “illegal” and instigated by “foreign conspiracy,” he halted the proceedings and declared early elections. The Prime Minister’s actions are seen as a blatant contravention of the constitution.

The Supreme Court is now exploring the move’s legality, but the damage may already be done. Osama Malik, an Islamabad-based legal expert, told DW, “It was an unprecedented attack on democracy and the constitution by an elected government. If the acting speaker’s actions are declared valid, then every future government will be allowed to use an imaginary conspiracy to stop the no-confidence vote.”

The allegation of “foreign conspiracy,” which many cite as the primary reason for the quick deterioration of the situation, is said to be a casual conversation between the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Affairs, Donald Lu, and Pakistan envoy Asad Majeed. It is alleged that Mr. Lu warned there could be “dire consequences” for Pakistan if Prime Minister Imran Khan remained in office.

The fragile coalition government that came to power in 2018 has already splintered. The cricketing hero-turned-politician who came to power promising to fight corruption seems to have completely lost the plot.

The fact is that the playboy-turned-philanthropist Prime Minister has been losing favor with the most crucial constituent of the administration—its military. The Pakistani military establishment has a long history with the United States. Imran Khan’s ever-growing anti-West rhetoric and closeness to Russia would have rubbed the powerful army generals the wrong way. For instance, the world watched in disbelief as Prime Minister Khan visited President Putin the day his military attacked Ukraine. Islamabad has yet to condemn the Russian invasion. While this time, the military has said that it would not intervene, it is being interpreted to mean that the establishment will not move overtly to seize power.

Whatever the reasons, the populist Islamist leader is not free of the jinx that seems to plague the country’s prime ministers. In its 75 years of independence, not a single elected prime minister has managed to stay in power for the entire five-year term. They have either fallen victims to military coups, political assassinations or had to tender their resignations following severe scandals.

While instability in any country is undesirable, it is especially so in the case of Pakistan. Sandwiched between Afghanistan and Iran to the west, India to the east, and China to the northeast, the country is located in a sensitive geopolitical region. Its porous border with Afghanistan and its sympathetic attitude towards the Taliban regime have been contentious issues. For decades, Islamabad has faced allegations of interference across the border, in Afghanistan and India, for shielding terrorist outfits and engaging in proxy wars.

It is clear that the coming election will once again be fought on the “anti-West” platform. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s increasing populist Islamist policies and friendliness with hardliners have helped Islamabad cement its relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is also possible that Pakistan, a nuclear power, will draw closer to Iran, another extremist Islamist country in the region.

Despite facing the highest inflation rates in South Asia and a chronic economic crisis, once again, mere political rhetoric and posturing will likely sway the coming election. The Khan administration’s growing association with China, which engages in economic cooperation to boost its sphere of influence, has often raised eyebrows. Beijing has roped in Islamabad for megaprojects under its Belt and Road Initiative schemes.

Pakistan has been struggling to steer its way out of an economic crisis made worse by the pandemic. With a political crisis now turned into a constitutional one, Prime Minister Khan has dragged the country into turmoil to retain power. Now, on top of high inflation rates, rising national debt, and spreading extremism, the 220 million Pakistanis again face the prospect of a failed democracy.

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