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.