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Why Pakistan’s Leader Is Facing the Risk of Ouster

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, speaks in a prerecorded video during the United Nations General Assembly via live stream in New York, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. A scaled-back United Nations General Assembly returns to Manhattan after going completely virtual last year, but fears about a possible spike in Covid-19 cases are making people in the host city less enthusiastic about the annual diplomatic gathering. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg
Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, speaks in a prerecorded video during the United Nations General Assembly via live stream in New York, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. A scaled-back United Nations General Assembly returns to Manhattan after going completely virtual last year, but fears about a possible spike in Covid-19 cases are making people in the host city less enthusiastic about the annual diplomatic gathering. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)

First elevated to power in 2018 elections, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has been widely seen as closely allied with the country’s powerful military, which until then had ruled the country for almost half its existence. Now, he appears to have lost some of the backing of this mighty constituency as well as some of his political allies. That spells danger for Khan at a time when his opponents, charging mismanagement of the economy, have ganged up to challenge his populist leadership.   

1. How are they challenging him?

The two largest opposition parties, once bitter rivals, have set aside their enmity to work together toward removing Khan, a former cricket star, from power. They are the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz headed by Nawaz Sharif, who’s been prime minister three times, and the Pakistan Peoples Party, led jointly by former President Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Together with smaller opposition groups, they are seeking to remove Khan with a vote of no confidence in Parliament’s lower house, now scheduled for April 9. In a series of events that stunned the country, a member of Khan’s party originally scrapped the planned vote over alleged foreign interference, Khan swiftly called a new election in a nationally televised address and President Arif Alvi, another Khan ally, dissolved parliament. But in a ruling April 7, Pakistan’s Supreme Court reversed those moves, saying Khan had to face the no-confidence vote, after which he is likely to be toppled by the opposition.

2. What’s the criticism of Khan’s economic management? 

Facing a balance-of-payments crisis, Khan has demonstrated an approach that critics characterize as haphazard and inconsistent. He’s appointed four finance ministers and about half a dozen finance secretaries since 2018. He’s also frequently changed his tax chief and the head of the Board of Investment. Initially, he was reluctant to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Then a year after he did so in 2019, the program -- Pakistan’s 13th such loan in 30 years -- was suspended because Pakistan failed to meet IMF conditions for it. The plan was revived last year after Khan’s administration agreed to tougher conditions, including raising oil prices and electricity tariffs. But a few months later, Khan cut domestic fuel costs and power rates to soothe public anger over rising living costs, measures seen as putting the IMF program in jeopardy. Talks between the IMF officials and Khan’s administration are ongoing for the release of the next installment of the loan.

3. Why is the military’s position important?

Pakistan’s military has outsized power for a country conceived as a democracy. There have been three successful military coups. When Khan became prime minister, it was only the second time since Pakistan achieved independence in 1947 that a civilian administration had transferred power to another. Even when elected governments have ruled, the military, especially the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, has played a forceful role. The armed forces have entrenched positions in the economy through land ownership and shareholdings in large corporations, along with an oversized sway on foreign and security policies.

4. What are Khan’s relations with the military?

Until recently, it was widely thought that Khan was fully backed by the military in an arrangement referred to as a hybrid regime. In behind-the-scenes maneuvers, the armed forces helped him survive several previous moves by opponents to remove him from power. This time, opposition parties and most analysts say, the military isn’t backing him. Both Khan and the military deny that the Army helped Khan come into power or hold on to it. 

5. What are the signs things have changed?

In October, ISI chief General Faiz Hameed, a Khan favorite, was moved to a less significant post. His replacement, General Nadeem Ahmad Anjum, according to local media reports, has ordered his forces not to engage in political matters. Local media say the Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, wants his soldiers to focus on external threats as -- after a brief pause -- attacks by militant groups operating in Pakistan have increased since the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan last year. Pakistan says such groups have their origins in neighboring India or Afghanistan (which those countries deny) but have metastasized and struck in Pakistan, largely against security forces and Muslims of the minority Shiite sect. It’s estimated that Pakistan has lost more than 80,000 lives in terrorist attacks since 2001. 

6. What’s at stake?

To justify his move to circumvent the no-confidence vote, Khan has repeatedly blamed foreign interference from the U.S., which denies such activity. That will make it difficult for him to repair ties if he hangs on to power. Khan, who has been critical of the U.S. while seeking better relations with Russia and China, has said he would continue to pursue an “independent” foreign policy. His opponents have vowed to improve ties with the U.S. and Europe if they win. Talks with the IMF over releasing funds from a loan needed to shore up Pakistan’s foreign reserves and tame Asia’s second-fastest inflation rate also hang in the balance. 

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