Saro Thiruppathy reviews the rather complex and complicated system of democracy that operates in Pakistan – with the blessings of the military

When Imran Khan was ousted as prime minister shortly after midnight on 10 April, he made history in Pakistan as the first premier to have been dumped using a legal vote of no confidence, rather than through a coup or an assassination.

Pakistan holds the dubious distinction of never allowing its prime ministers to serve their full term in office.

So while the West was obsessing over Ukraine and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, much of Asia was startled to learn in early April that the opposition was seeking to unseat Imran through a vote of no confidence.

Then in a typically authoritarian move, the then premier and his allies blocked the debate by dissolving the lower house of parliament. The supreme court was not amused and ruled that the vote must be held.

Imran Khan’s logic for trying to stymie the vote was that a foreign conspiracy was aiming for regime change in Pakistan because of his mostly anti-Western foreign policy, which included criticism of the US led war in Afghanistan.

The former cricketing icon turned suave politician came into power in 2018 with the military’s support. Pakistan’s military is both a kingmaker and power breaker; over the decades, it has played a de­cisive role in the political fortunes of the country.

But the relationship that Pakistani prime ministers have with the military begins well and ends in tears when that power bloc withdraws its vital support.

Imran’s ambitious election pledge was to give Pakistan a new beginning by improving governance and the social welfare system, introducing health insurance etc. His supporters were convinced that the regime would put an end to elitism, cronyism and corruption, all of which have been associated with governments in the past.

But it seems that things went horribly wrong for Imran Khan with the onset of the pandemic and his inability to revive the economy, which took a beating as a result of it. Nor was he able to make Pakistan corruption free – or prospe­rous, for that matter.

In addition to which the cost of living has been rising and the Pakistani Rupee has been falling against the US Dollar. The government blamed glo­bal conditions for the disas­trous economy but public resentment was rising; and many felt that even while his predecessor and his cohorts may have made themselves rich, the country functioned reasonably well.

But Khan’s problems were not so much due to a depreciating rupee or the failing economy but rather, his poor judgement during an internal battle that was taking place within the army.

His original patrons in the army were Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the head of ISI Lt. Gene­ral Faiz Hameed. The opposi­tion claimed that they were responsible for helping Imran steal the election in 2018.

But as in all unstable situations, the dynamic changed rather dramatically since the army was angered by Imran Khan’s failure to ensure good governance in all of Pakistan, particularly in Punjab. And to make matters worse, Bajwa and Hameed began to fall out because the latter was hoping to become the next army chief.

Nevertheless, in spite of Hameed’s confidence that he was the man for the job, there were others who weren’t quite so sure. While his capacity to efficiently handle ‘dirty jobs’ – which included allegations of manipulating politi­cians and silencing critics – was not in question, Hameed’s detractors felt he wasn’t suita­ble to lead the army.

By October last year, the row between Bajwa and Hameed had spilled into the public domain. Bajwa had wanted the head of ISI replaced but Imran resisted since he wanted to retain the latter until the next election. So he delayed issuing formal approval for the change for more than a fortnight.

Though he eventually relented, the cracks in the relationship between Imran Khan and the army became visible and that provided the opposition with the thin edge of the wedge through which to gain a foothold in its aim to rid Pakistan of him.

While the opposition was planning the vote of no confidence against the PM and gaining support from within his own party and coalition allies, the military intimated that it would remain neutral on this occasion.

Apparently, until Hameed left office, parliamentarians would receive unsolicited calls from the intelligence service where they’d be instructed on what they should and shouldn’t do. With the army remaining neutral, Khan’s downfall was simply a matter of time.

Imran Khan had been at odds with the army on foreign policy too.

General Bajwa had been against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and stated that it must be stopped immediately. However, Imran visited Moscow on the very day that Russian troops entered Ukraine and refused to condemn Putin’s actions.

Former premier Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shehbaz assumed office as the new Prime Minister of Pakistan on 11 April.