March 2023

An embattled nation

Chaos reigns in Pakistan amid Imran Khan’s calls for early elections and the ruling PDM’s struggles to contain inflation and the fleeing of foreign reserves. Arshad Yusufzai  reports

Politics in Pakistan has been experiencing a rollercoaster ride since former prime minister Imran Khan became the first ruler in the country’s 75-year history to lose a vote of confidence. This was moved by a 13-party coalition of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) in the lower house of the parliament under Article 91, Clause 2A of the Constitution of Pakistan on 10 April 2022. The then opposition was able to secure a majority 174 votes out of 342 to end Khan’s nearly four years in power, electing leader of the opposition Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif as the new prime minister a day later.

Having failed to protect his rule by attempting to persuade the country’s mighty and decision-making military, Imran Khan immediately blamed a ‘United States government’s diplomatic cable’, which he alleged mentioned the US’s desire to remove him from office and was issued a day before the opposition filed the no confidence motion against him on 8 March. At the time, Imran and his followers claimed the US was unhappy with him visiting Russia and meeting President Vladmir Putin just a day before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

However, despite vigorous campaigning against Imran Khan’s incompetence and inability to control inflation, the PDM soon started facing the same problems as inflation gathered pace and the country’s foreign exchange reserves – currently said to be sitting at the lowest in history at $3bn – started draining almost immediately after the change in power in Islamabad, forcing Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to impose a ban on a wide range of non-essential luxury goods on 19 May 2022.

Realising that the new government was in an uncomfortable situation, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) started applying all its resources to try and bring down the federal government, beginning with levelling allegations against the US for its supposed role in toppling his government, which resulted in every PTI supporter utilising social media to castigate the US’s alleged intervention in Pakistani politics. Die-hard fans of Imran Khan and the PTI across the country started fixing stickers reading ‘Absolutely Not’, referring to Imran Khan’s response to a question in an interview with Axios HBO in June 2021, when he was asked if he would allow the CIA to conduct cross border counter-terrorism missions against terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

Imran Khan’s 2022 ‘long marches’ to Islamabad
FRUITLESS: Last year’s ‘long marches’ proved futile in forcing the federal government into early elections

In another rare and dangerous move, Khan shoved aside fears of all known and unknown consequences by targeting the Army and directly accusing the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa of ousting him from power by claiming that the now retired general supported the PDM in their ‘unconstitutional’ no-confidence motion.

Khan has used at least seven more cards in the past ten months to push the country into early elections. His move of resigning from the national assembly of Pakistan, along with all his elected party members, was an attempt to force the PDM into holding elections. However, the PTI’s radical step was seen as suicidal by many experts as it did not budge the federal government.

Imran Khan became the first ruler in Pakistan’s 75-year history to lose a vote of confidence

Then came the two long marches towards Islamabad. Imran Khan had expected his party leadership to amass hundreds of thousands of supporters from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, along with PTI supporters from Pakistan-administered Kashmir, in an effort to occupy the federal capital in a repetition of the 2014 Azadi March or Independence March that lasted 126 days from 14 August to 17 December, and was only called off after the 16 December Army Public School massacre in Peshawar. However, last year’s long marches also proved futile in forcing the federal government or the establishment into early elections.

Car stickers flaunted by die-hard fans of Imran Khan and the PTI

While charging towards Islamabad from Lahore with thousands of his supporters, Imran Khan suffered bullet injuries to his right leg when he was subjected to an alleged assassination attempt in Punjab’s Wazirabad city on 3 November 2022. Although the suspected attacker claimed in a video leaked by the police that he wanted to kill Imran Khan for misguiding people, the 70-year-old PTI chief alleged that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Federal Minister of Interior Affairs Rana Sanaullah and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) head of the counter-intelligence wing, Major General Faisal Naseer, were behind the attempt on his life. The attack shocked the entire country. Within hours, Imran Khan’s supporters took to the streets nationwide, while many staged vehement protests against the Pakistan Army, including violent gatherings in front of the Army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and the Corps Commander’s house in Peshawar.

Holding elections amid unparalleled inflation would provide undue favour to Imran Khan

Other important steps Imran Khan took to destabilise the government included passing legislation against the legitimacy of the federal government through the provincial governments led by Khan’s PTI, and eventually by tendering resignations from both provincial assemblies in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well as from assemblies in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.

In a very recent move beginning in the second half of February, Khan threatened to fill all prisons in the country and instructed his followers to offer voluntary arrests at their local police stations. However, he and literally every known leader of his party, including the former members of the national and provincial assemblies, have avoided arrests. At times, some leaders led small numbers of party workers to prisons but they returned home after posing for photographs while briefly entering prison vans.

However, even the resignations could not get Khan the desired results. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the body constitutionally responsible for organising federal and provincial elections, is visibly in no mood to arrange early elections despite Article 224 A of the Elections Act 2017 binding it to hold elections between 54 to 90 days after an assembly is dissolved.

Khan suffered bullet injuries to his right leg following an alleged assassination attempt in Punjab’s Wazirabad city on 3 Nov. 2022

Undoubtedly under pressure from the military establishment and the PDM federal government, the election commission has told the courts hearing the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) requests for early elections that it wants to hold polls within 90 days.But doing so requires provision of security from the army, who have refused to spare soldiers for election duties, citing the volatile security situation in the country as a reason.

The ECP also told the courts that the civil administration will not provide its workforce for election duties and, without that support, elections cannot take place. Thirdly, the ECP stated that the elections will cost between 50 to 60 billion rupees and the federal government isnot in a position to provide that financial support due to the economic crisis.

Interestingly, people sitting in the current government are seen as political ‘gurus’ compared to Imran Khan’s companions, most of whom are often labelled as toddlers in politics. Some constitutional experts in the current government are of the view that holding elections in 90 days is not obligatory.

Experts opine that holding elections at the due time in October this year is more appropriate, since the country cannot afford huge sums on early elections. They also believe that holding elections amid unparalleled inflation would provide undue favour to Imran Khan, whom the current rulers see as the real reason behind the country’s economic chaos.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his government are heavily relying on the International Monitory Fund (IMF) to provide a lifeline to the country as the financial situation in the country is one of the driving forces behind the delay in holding elections. Fuel prices have nearly doubled in the last ten months. Electricity prices have increased more than 25 percent, medicine costs have also risen hugely, but above all food prices have sky-rocketed since Shehbaz Sharif took power. He rightly feels that his government requires more time to take steps that can at least control inflation and provide some relief to voters before next general poll.

Furthermore, the Governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Haji Ghulam Ali, recently went to Punjab to meet and devise a joint strategy with his counterpart, Governor of Punjab Muhammad Baligh ur Rahman, and Punjab caretaker Chief Minister Mohsin Raza Naqvi. It is understood that the leadership in both provinces is not in favour of early elections.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa cites the precarious security situation in the province, particularly the terrorist attacks on police and the counter-terrorism security operations in the southern districts, as factors in demanding a delay in the elections. Similarly, a recent statement by the now ex-Inspector General of Police in KP regarding the shortage of police in the province was also a worrying factor, as the police chief mentioned at least 57,000 additional police personnel are required to improve security conditions there.

On the other hand, Punjab province is basing their case for delaying elections on the fact that the country faces a dire economic crisis and elections require spending nearly 60 billion rupees. In any case, the real pressure will be on the provincial high courts, which are hearing arguments filed by the PTI for holding elections, and will decide.

Arshad Yusufzai has covered the Afghan conflict and terrorism in Pakistan, worked as a communication expert with the ICRC in Pakistan, and advised the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue-Geneva on Afghanistan