Faced with the threat of a no-confidence vote in parliament that he was likely to lose, Prime Minister Imran Khan, in an attempt to block his ouster, sent shockwaves through Pakistan by dissolving the National Assembly on April 3rd, 2022. In a televised speech, Khan announced that his request for dissolution, which was executed shortly before the no-confidence vote could occur, was based on claims that the United States had conspired with Khan’s opposition to remove him from power. Because of this, Khan argued that any no-confidence vote held against him would be illegitimate and that Pakistan should instead hold snap elections to determine who should preside over the government. Despite this attempt to prevent his removal from power, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that Khan’s request for dismissal was in violation of the constitution, and Khan lost the no-confidence vote on April 9th, with 174 out of 342 MPs voting against Khan. Although institutions like the Supreme Court were seemingly able to resist Khan’s executive influence, Pakistan’s military continues to play a major role in deciding who becomes prime minister and influences the decisions of most of the country’s institutions. The military’s influence over Pakistan’s politics constrains its democracy and can be attributed to both the rise and fall of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
Pakistan’s military took a number of steps during the 2018 national election to tip the scale in favor of the PTI. For example, members of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), a main electoral opponent of the PTI, claim that military officials threatened them to defect from their party before the upcoming election. Those who remained with the party were subject to harassment from security forces, including raids and arrests. Likewise, supporters of Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and the founder of the PMLN, argue that the military pressured the Supreme Court to ban Sharif from public office after he was charged with corruption in 2017 because Shariff sought to reduce the army’s influence over defense and foreign policy.
Additionally, Geo, Pakistan’s largest television network, was forced off the air by the military after the network praised Sharif and was critical of Khan, which caused other media outlets to censor themselves out of fear of being similarly targeted. These actions weakened the PMLN’s electoral chances and demonstrate the military’s ability to constrain and dissuade party participation and free press in Pakistan. According to Diamond in “Elections Without Democracies: Thinking About Hybrid Regimes,” although a country may hold regular multiparty elections, without sufficiently open and free electoral contestation, the election results will not remove the ruling regime from power. Because of the military’s ability to influence Pakistan’s elections and limit dissent, Pakistan should be classified as a “psuedodemocratic” country, where elections are unlikely to reduce the longstanding power of the military over government affairs.
Khan, who first rose to prominence in Pakistan as a world-renowned cricket player, ran on a populist platform that promised to end the corruption that has plagued Pakistan’s politics for decades. Although he was considered a political outsider, Khan attracted many young and middle-class voters who were excited by the PTI’s proposed reforms, which included a robust Islamic welfare state for Pakistan, and the party grew increasingly popular. During the campaign, Khan was strongly pro-military, condemned Sharif for negotiating with India against the military’s wishes, and showed some sympathy towards the Taliban, which may have led to the military’s support of his candidacy against the PMLN. After the PTI won a plurality of seats in the national assembly, Khan was able to form a coalition government with smaller parties and independents to become prime minister. After Khan became prime minister, accusations were made that security officials threatened and bribed independent MPs to join PTI’s coalition.
Despite running on an ambitious platform, Khan proved unable to deliver on his campaign promises of broad change in Pakistan. In 2021, Pakistan’s inflation rose to the highest of any country in South Asia, which put a heavy economic burden on many Pakistanis and derailed Khan’s economic agenda. Khan largely failed to reign in corruption as he selectively persecuted his opposition while ignoring his allies’ corruption. Khan also strained his relationship with the army after he and Pakistan’s army chief, Qamar Bajwa, got into a tense disagreement regarding who should run the country’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency. It is believed that because of these governing failures and his increasing disagreements with army leaders, the military dropped its implied support of Khan, which opened the door for a no-confidence vote to be held. As the military became neutral toward Khan, members of PTI’s coalition began to defect and join the opposition against Khan.
During the leadup to the no-confidence vote, Khan accused his opposition of doing the bidding of the United States, saying “The people will always remember that you sold your country. Through a foreign conspiracy, you tried to topple a government.” As discussed by Muller in What is Populism, populist leaders like Khan try to delegitimize their opposition by claiming that they are working against the interests of the nation by opposing the populist who represents the “people’s agenda.” Although this rhetoric failed to stop the no-confidence vote, it has inspired mass protests from supporters of PTI to occur across Pakistan and the mass resignation of PTI members from the National Assembly. Because of this, Pakistan’s interim prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, who became the leader of the PMLN after his brother’s indictment, will have to contend both with an energized opposition that views his government as foreign and illegitimate as well as a military that continues to play an outsized role in Pakistan’s politics and policy decisions. Regardless of who leads Pakistan, the military will remain behind the scenes, ready to remove any leader who goes too far in challenging its authority.