Pakistan has had a troubled history with its leadership, and despite the past few years of relative stability, it seems that trend is not about to change. Not even a few weeks prior, former cricket star and celebrity turned politician and Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted from the government position of head of state that he had held from 2018 due to a no-confidence vote in his government, ending his nearly four-year tenure as Prime Minister just about a year short from his regular stepping down from power. This continues the ongoing trend that the relatively new parliamentary democracy has faced since its inception in its 75-year history, in which no Pakistani Prime Minister has ever finished a full tenure. But despite the regularity of this happening, the outcome of this removal feels like a turning point for the country, one which may determine its allegiance on the global stage for years to come. Imran Khan and his supporters – which are many – represent a vision for Pakistan that seeks to distance itself from the West and the United States as its enemy India draws ever closer to them, and align itself with the Chinese sphere of influence, while Khan’s opposition headed by the new PM Shehbaz Sharif seeks to slowly rethread the fraying relationship with the West and the US that was marred by the many conflicts in its neighbor Afghanistan. Khan’s claims that he was unjustly voted out by the US’ support of his opposition only serve to grow this gap. Whatever the outcome of the soon upcoming election and the protests following Khan’s removal will influence the country and its global relationships in ways that will be felt by its citizens for years.
Imran Khan was an interesting and refreshing new leader for Pakistan when he took office in 2018. Since General Pervaiz Musharraf’s takeover of the government and implementation of martial law at the turn of the century in 1999, the country has been mostly under the rule of corrupt Prime Ministers like Nawaz Sharif and interim leaders, so the populist-tinged rhetoric of the previously well-loved former superstar Imran Khan found easy traction with the Pakistani people. The US’ involvement in Afghanistan over the past two decades – which included regular covert operations within Pakistani borders of questionable breaches of sovereignty – had soured its populace on that relationship and left them accepting Khan’s anti-US rhetoric with open hands. And after coming into office, Khan remained popular, with a poll early in his tenure showing him with an over 50% approval rating, a rare thing for Pakistani PMs to achieve. He was praised by the Pakistani people for his economic and environmental reforms, his crackdown on political corruption, and his improvement of the country’s social services. Despite this, he still had a number of detractors that criticized his foreign policy, including his close relationships with Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China, as well as his constant criticism of the US and its ties with Pakistan. This all culminated a few weeks ago in early April, when an opposition party led by Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of Nawaz Sharif, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of disgraced and unpopular former president Asif Ali Zardari, and Fazal-ur-Rehman, an Islamic fundamentalist and vocal supporter of the Taliban, organized a vote of no confidence to remove Khan from office. After he failed to dissolve the National Assembly of Pakistan to block the vote, he was voted out and removed from office.
He immediately took to the streets to organize his enraged supporters, claiming his opposition was backed by the United States to remove him after he refused to bend to their will, while the now current sitting PM Sharif sought to rekindle the sputtering relationship the country had with the US. The controversial ties of the three opposition leaders were of no help to them either and garnered even more distrust against them. The US repeatedly denied having any involvement in the vote and the funding of the opposition party, but the US’ long-held track record of involving itself with other countries’ elections reasonably made it a tough sell on many Pakistanis. Khan and his supporters have repeatedly claimed that the Khan’s policies of getting closer to China and Russia prompted this change and that the US interfered to keep the nuclear power within its sphere of influence. Shahbaz Sharif’s claim that “beggars can’t be choosers” referring to Pakistan only served to embolden the nationalism of Khan’s supporters to break free from the yolk of the West.
Pakistan has had a troubled history when it comes to tumultuous times like this, with military takeovers and coups not irregular within the country’s history. Whether Khan’s claims of interference are true or not, and how he plans to turn the country’s democracy should he find some way to reclaim power (and how his reclaiming of power may go about; peacefully in the next election or through a violent takeover), as well as how Shahbaz Sharif will turn the country and its foreign allegiances will be instrumental in determining the integrity of this new democracy’s elections and its people’s faith in those electoral processes for many many years to come.
Ann Hollis Sanders
Abbas, I really enjoyed reading your research on this issue. I wasn’t aware of this conflict before I read your piece and it was very insightful. I found the United States involvement in this situation especially interesting and a topic that I would love to explore in more depth. In a sense the United States enabled Imran Khan to come to power. Khan held anti-United States rhetoric due to the United States military’s often disregard of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Khan’s populist ideology and personality was also highly appealing to the Pakistani people because of their feelings of being overlooked in the international sphere (The United States). The United States disregarding their sovereignty at points, allowed an easy opportunity for a populist leader to come to power. In class we studied populism quite extensively, and one of the ideologies that populist leaders use is the ordinary moral people against the elite. In this situation, the ordinary people could be the Pakistani people and the elites could be the United States. It creates a common enemy and then allows the people to rally around a person, in this case Imran Khan, to defeat that enemy so that he may give the power back to the rightful owners. As you right, then the United States is said to have funded the opposing party for the Prime Minster position. If this is true, this is fascinating because in the United States’ attempt to fund the opposing party to try and attempt the defeat of Imran Khan, could have backfires. Khan could have used this as another emotional pull for Pakistan to vote him into office so that he could defeat the United States military/government.
The conflict you described in this post has some glaringly similar elements to that of the 2016 election in the United States. The “celebrity turned politician” trope for Imran Khan is obviously in alignment with the U.S.’s Donald Trump, who arguably increased democratic backsliding in the country. This is interesting to me because, as you stated, they are working to “distance [Pakistan] from the West and the United States.” Despite the similarities in the leaders, it is understandable that the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan would be overwhelmingly influential in the discontent felt toward the Western nation. In the U.S., Trump utilized similar rhetoric against sitting members of office, spreading anti-establishment sentiment. While it may be true that there was interference among Pakistan’s government, Khan’s (and Trump’s) actions are easily described as that of populists, agents against strong democracies.
Hey Abbas, I find your analysis of Imran Khan’s ousting of Prime Minister very interesting. While as you point out, this isn’t the first time a Pakistani Prime Minister has failed to serve his full tenure, the nature of his removal will have a great impact on Pakistani politics. His allegations that the US was involved in his removal will stir up discontent amongst the Pakistani population, which understandably have a negative perspective regarding the United States considering the anti-American propaganda disseminated under Khan and American involvement in Afghanistan. I met some Pakistani students at a family party one time, since my uncle is Pakistani. Those students believed that the US was perpetrating destructive storms in Pakistan with American satellites to disrupt Pakistani electrical grids; that was evidence enough for me that they were being subject to propaganda from state media. While the US has a long history of harmful intervention at the expense of smaller states, I doubt the American government is causing storms to disrupt Pakistani electrical grids with satellites. That being said, I do not doubt for a second that the US would interfere in Pakistani elections to produce an outcome that benefits America. As you mentioned, they have a long track record of doing exactly that, across the globe. The alignment of Pakistan under Shahbaz Sharif will be interesting as the world shifts towards a bipolar system, with China being the rising power. The threats of the thucydides trap and another modern day Cold War are becoming more real everyday. While Khan may have been aligning with China, and encouraging Chinese investment in Pakistan, Sharif may choose to align with the West, especially if he is the candidate of choice for the US.
Well done, Abbas. I did my country case study on Pakistan, so it was definitely helpful to read about it from a peer, and yours was especially well written. Khan’s proximity to global autocrats is definitely worrying. In my presentation, I referenced Khan’s visit to Moscow on the day of the Ukrainian invasion, and Pakistan’s absence from the Summit for Democracy. Another key piece of information is that Pakistan is basically the flagship for China’s Belt and Road initiative. In 2015 the $46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor was announced, which would fund massive infrastructure projects: roads, railways, and pipelines. This initiative has allowed the military to erode the already fragile Pakistani democracy, by smoothing out political and economic issues and critics with force. Pakistan seeks to benefit from closer ties to China, and Russia, to compete with its rival, India. In my opinion, it does not bode well for Pakistan’s democracy. You’re absolutely right, Imran Khan’s undemocratic actions are really nothing new in Pakistan, which has been rife with corruption and illiberalism since its creation. What’s different about this case, however, is that Pakistan really did seem to be on a path to democracy. It held successful elections from 2008-2018 (sort of), and it seemed that election violence was becoming less rampant. In addition, Pakistanis do hold democracy in high regard. 81% of Pakistanis believe democracy is ultimately better than authoritarianism for dealing with Pakistan’s problems. In my opinion, it may be hard to reverse the attitudes of some Pakistanis. Although the recent leaders of Pakistan have tried getting closer with the world’s main autocrats, this shift may not necessarily be representative of the public at large. I believe that many are eager to see economic progress in the country, but are skeptical of what expense it might come at.