Pakistan, the second largest nation in Southeast Asia and fifth largest in the world, has not enjoyed political stability since the assassination of its first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951. As early as 1954, only seven years after independence from British India, political interference and manoeuvring by the military began. Pakistan saw the first military coup in 1958 as Field Marshal Ayub Khan seized power by replacing Iskander Mirza as the President of Pakistan. Pakistan’s political history has since been marred with military coups, covert foreign interference, and self-serving policies of the national political parties creating a deeply fractured and severely dysfunctional political system.
A shock to the status quo
In the last elections held in Pakistan in 2018, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, PTI, led by its chairman Imran Khan, emerged as the single largest national political party. Consequently, PTI and its allies formed the government in the national assembly and four out of five provinces. However, soon after coming into power, the PTI led government faced a strong challenge from two of the largest opposition political parties: Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), PML(N), and Pakistan People’s Party, PPP. In 2020, using the usual allegations of rigging in the elections and soaring prices of food and utilities, these political parties, along with a dozen other parliamentary parties formed a broader coalition against the government, naming it “Pakistan Democratic Movement”, PDM. Although designed to damage PTI, this political union of the traditional arch-rivals, PML(N) and PPP catapulted Khan’s popularity. The public could now see Khan’s long held narrative in play – that these legacy political parties were in fact only ruling dynasties, united in loot and plunder, and maintaining a façade as rivals. To make matters worse for PDM, Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of the controversial ex-Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif who was convicted for corruption, was appointed as the new Prime Minister.
Critics argued that PDM had no real agenda that served the interest of the people of Pakistan and was only formed to create political unrest and agitation against Khan and his ruling party, PTI. PDM made several attempts to hold rallies in a bid to put pressure on the government to resign but no serious dent could be made. However, earlier this year in April, key parliamentary allies of PTI and some of its own members suddenly started crossing the floor and joined hands with the Opposition. This was as unexpected as it was sudden. Consequently, a vote of no-confidence was successfully passed against Khan in parliament, albeit with only a small majority, that saw his early exit as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, after being in power for only three and a half years.
Khan blamed foreign powers and the local “establishment” (a term often used to refer to the military) for orchestrating his ouster. He accused the Opposition of unashamedly buying out PTI’s allies and members right under the watchful eyes of the establishment. Khan claimed that he was being punished by the West in collusion with the local operators because he attempted to pursue an independent foreign policy for Pakistan—a policy that was not dictated by the demands of the West but one which was apparently in the best interests of the people of Pakistan. Previously, he had famously and bluntly refused to give air bases and airspace to US military for conducting operations in Afghanistan. Under Khan’s leadership, Pakistan defied pressure from the West and abstained from voting in the UN against Russia on the invasion of Ukraine, which was a serious blow to the influence of the US Administration on Pakistani foreign policy. Khan also visited Russia against the wishes of the West and negotiated favourable deals for import of oil and wheat for Pakistan.
Inheriting economic turmoil
After his ouster the new government took power in April, but soon found itself knee-deep in economic problems. It inherited only $10b in foreign reserves while the annual debt repayment alone was $21b. The new government had to take unpopular decisions to evade an economic collapse by complying with the tough conditions imposed by the IMF. It removed subsidies from petroleum products, increased taxes, and reduced government spending, fuelling inflation and putting essentials like utilities, fuel, and food items beyond the common man’s reach. Annual inflation shot up to almost 21% according to some reports.
Economic troubles mounted further because of the ongoing Ukraine conflict. The government was dealt with a serious blow when long-term LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) contracts were cancelled by commodity trading European companies as they found more lucrative buyers in Europe. Consequently, the government was forced to purchase LNG at much higher rates in the spot market to meet its energy demands, putting even more pressure on its already slim foreign currency reserves.
Back at home, because of the poor fiscal position, the government struggled to pay, even in local currency, the dues to the local Independent Power Plants (IPPs). Consequently, these plants shut their supply causing prolonged power shortages in peak summertime in the largest city of Pakistan, Karachi, and its neighbouring areas.
To avoid an imminent default on international debt obligations, the newly elected Prime Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, sought help from traditional allies and visited Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. However, the confidence in Pakistan’s economy was low and no new loans or aid were offered. This brought shame to many in the nation which described their new Prime Minister as “begging” for aid yet coming back empty-handed, swamping social media with deprecating memes. This negative publicity for the new government saw their popularity slump even further.
The public were quick to start appreciating the previous government’s economic performance in contrast, when the country was reported to see boosts in exports, increases in local production and record inward remittances from expat Pakistanis. Khan promptly took advantage and launched a fresh movement against the new government calling it an “Imported Government”. People responded to Khan’s calls in massive numbers and held protests, rallies, and vigils across the country, despite facing the wrath of law enforcement agencies. According to some reports, the new government was accused of using draconian measures like tear gas shells and baton charges to disperse crowds, not even sparing families participating in these seemingly peaceful protests. However, Khan’s supporters remained undeterred.
Riding the popular tide against the establishment, some independent journalists mustered enough courage to openly criticise the military for stifling their voices. Many of these journalists were apprehended and even roughed up while in custody. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, because of Khan’s massive popularity and an impeccable record as a clean politician, the military could not effectively cover up their alleged role in uprooting a sitting political government. To diffuse anti-military sentiments fomenting fast in public, the Army media wing and the Army Chief himself had to address various forums and issue official statements to convince the public that the Army was neutral and had no political role to play. This obvious and seemingly nervous defence by the military establishment apparently added further credibility to Khan’s claims.
A change of trajectory
Against this backdrop, Punjab—the largest province of Pakistan by population and the nerve-centre of national politics—saw the PTI-appointed Chief Minister resigning in the wake of Khan’s departure. Seizing the opportunity, as many as 25 PTI parliamentarians crossed the floor and joined PML(N) in the Punjab Assembly. This shift was enough in numbers to get a new Chief Minister from the largest opposition party PML(N) elected. However, PTI successfully challenged the floor-crossing in the courts and parliamentary membership of these dissident members was revoked. This landmark court ruling led to the holding of by-elections on 20 seats in July.
By-elections on these 20 provincial seats was a crucial test of Khan’s popularity. In case of a clear victory, PTI would form their government once again in Punjab. This would send shockwaves to the capital city, Islamabad, because historically the party that ruled Punjab also dominated the national political scene. Khan held massive rallies in the days and weeks leading up to the by-elections. Even his critics admitted that his charismatic personality and promise of a Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan) galvanised huge support on the ground. Unconfirmed reports of pre-poll rigging by PML(N) surfaced but Khan remained defiant and led his party workers from the front to mobilise voters on the election day.
Despite the alleged pre-poll rigging, PTI swept by-elections in Punjab held on the 17th of July and won 15 out of 20 seats with only four going to PML(N) and one to an independent candidate. This has been interpreted as a resounding vote of confidence by the public in Khan’s narrative of foreign interference. This margin of victory was enough for PTI to form their government once again in Punjab. Navigating through a few more political dramas in the provincial assembly, PTI was eventually able to appoint their own Chief Minister in Punjab.
A fresh set-back
Several political scenarios were being carved out by analysts, but one thing became clear: with Punjab back in PTI’s hands, keeping Khan out of the national political scene was no longer an option. However, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the regulator for overseeing the conduct of political parties, decided to issue a Show Cause Notice, in the first week of August, to the leadership of PTI, in a case of Foreign Funding filed in 2014 against PTI by one of its disgruntled members. In the complaint to the ECP, it was alleged that PTI accepted funds from foreign entities and individuals for their election campaign and failed to declare them to the ECP and is therefore guilty of breaking the law. It took the ECP eight years to finally conclude the matter, but the timing of the Show Cause Notice coinciding with tables turning in Punjab in favour of PTI is hardly seen as a coincidence.
The political scene of Pakistan will now change rapidly. The sitting government hopes that the foreign funding case against PTI will potentially ban Khan and his party from participating in future political activities, but PTI’s legal team on the other hand is determined to fight the case as it believes that the Show Cause Notice has no legal basis and can be challenged in the courts. PTI supporters nervously await the outcome of this all-important case, while the legal team of PTI prepares for a strong defence.
Khan is already demanding immediate fresh national elections and appears confident that the Foreign Funding case will have no serious consequences for his own or his party’s political future. Khan’s main aim will now be to secure a two-thirds majority in the new elections to avoid making coalitions in the national assembly, which crippled the PTI-led government in implementing their manifesto in their last tenure.
Pakistan’s looming danger
The economic woes of Pakistan are likely to continue irrespective of which party stays in power. Pakistan foreign bonds due to mature in the coming years are trading at a massive discount in the international financial markets because of the looming danger of Pakistan defaulting on its foreign debt obligations and entering a liquidity crisis with foreign reserves hovering at around the $9 billion mark—enough for only two months of imports. The three main international credit rating agencies have already downgraded Pakistan’s economic outlook to negative in recent weeks.
What a nuclear-armed country of 220 million people needs now is political stability and the rule of law to restore confidence of foreign investors and multi-lateral institutions in Pakistan’s economy. While Khan claims to fight on for the real freedom of Pakistan which will see his country tear down shackles of interference from international powers and local non-democratic forces, the Muslim world, in particular, looks on to see if Pakistan will ever be the truly free and progressing country that it once promised to be in the 60s and 70s, based on the vision it was born with 75 years ago today.