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SITUATION UPDATE 12 April, 2022 Back

Situation Update - Pakistan's political crisis

Emelie Andrusyszyn

Pakistan political unrest

Summary

  • On 9 April, Imran Khan received a vote of no-confidence from Pakistan's parliament, leading to his removal as prime minister and triggering a political crisis within the country.
  • Opposition politician Shehbaz Sharif, of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, was named and sworn in as prime minister on 11 April.
  • Sharif has announced a number of key policy priorities for the new leadership, including a focus on relations with China, India, and the US.
  • A major challenge for the new government is tackling Pakistan’s deteriorating economic situation, which involves high inflation and depleting foreign currency reserves.
  • Pakistan’s political outlook remains fragile and uncertain, with new general elections slated for 2023.

Situation

On 9 April, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan faced a vote of no-confidence, resulting in Khan being removed from the position after 174 MPs, from the 342-seat National Assembly, voted against him. Over 100 members of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party are understood to have resigned and boycotted the vote. Two days later, on 11 April, opposition lawmaker Shehbaz Sharif was named and sworn in as Pakistan’s new prime minister, receiving a majority 174 votes. Sharif is the brother of former three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif and was one of the leading opposition figures in the bid to remove Khan.

The political push against Imran Khan began on 8 March, when Pakistan’s opposition parties, involving 163 lawmakers from the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), submitted a motion before the National Assembly to hold a vote of no-confidence against the prime minister. The opposition argued that Khan had lost the support of the public, owing to his alleged mismanagement of the economy, which has seen inflation rise to 13% and the country’s foreign reserves plummet, as well as his reported mishandling of foreign policy. Khan’s relationship and support from the country’s military, which had helped Khan win the position in 2018, have also strained.
In response to the motion, Khan ordered the arrest of four members of the Tanzeem Ansar-ul-Islam, the volunteer wing of the opposition Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) party, whilst Federal Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan threatened to "blow up the opposition". Similarly, special assistant to Khan, Shehbaz Gill, stated that he would display photos of those belonging to Khan's PTI party who voted against the prime minister throughout cities in Pakistan so that they can be identified, in what has been interpreted as a threat of retaliatory violence. As a result, at least 20 members of the PTI party defected.

The initial vote, which had been postponed until 3 April from early March, resulted in Prime Minister Khan bypassing the motion only after the vote was blocked by Parliament’s Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri. The opposition reasoned that the motion was unconstitutional, after which the parliamentary session was adjourned. Khan immediately called on President Arif Alvi to dissolve the country’s Parliament and schedule new elections. Alvi later dissolved the National Assembly, the lower legislative house of Parliament.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court was prompted to step in and conducted several days of deliberation to review the political opposition’s appeal over the no-confidence vote. The court ruled on 7 April that the move to block the vote was unconstitutional and ordered the National Assembly be reinstated and hold the no-confidence vote, leading to Khan’s removal on 9 April.

Imran Khan has voiced his intentions to “fight” the motion and has previously stated he would “not resign under any circumstances, come what may”, prompting fears that Khan will continue to reject the current outcome. Khan announced that he believes the motion was a “foreign conspiracy” adding that the current leadership is now an “imposed government”. He implied that the US had conspired to oust him as prime minister due to his foreign policies towards Russia and China, allegations which the US State Department and Pakistani opposition have denied.

Analysis and Implications

The latest developments have again plunged Pakistan into a political crisis, a country in which no prime minister has completed a full five-year term. In addition to the country’s history of successive leadership by familial ties or emerging by coup, significantly this most recent motion also marks the first time a prime minister has been successfully ousted by a vote of no-confidence.

During the political deliberations that led to Khan's ousting, authorities increased security measures not only outside the Parliament building in Islamabad, but in cities nationwide, to mitigate against large-scale rallies and the potential for related unrest. However, the day after the vote, Khan and the PTI mobilised hundreds of thousands of their supporters in various Pakistani cities to protest against his removal and demand his reinstatement. The largest rallies were reported in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, and Quetta, most of which took place during the evening hours to coincide with the end of the daily fast for Ramadan.

Khan has called on citizens to join a large rally in Peshawar on 13 April. While expected attendance numbers are unclear, participation could be akin to a mass demonstration in Islamabad on 27 March called for by Khan as a "show of strength" against the opposition, which according to various sources saw a turnout of somewhere between 10,000 and two million individuals. While the demonstration on 27 March is largely understood to have been conducted peacefully, albeit with associated road and travel disruptions, additional protest action by both pro- and anti-Khan demonstrators as well as ongoing heightened security protocols cannot be discounted nationwide.

Although Pakistan's Supreme Court resolved a constitutional crisis, the new Sharif-led government now faces a number of challenges, particularly regarding how to approach the country’s deteriorating economic situation. This includes record high deficits, inflation, food and fuel prices, as well as quickly depleting foreign exchange reserves. On 7 April, the Pakistani rupee recorded an “all-time low” hitting 188 PKR to one USD. As prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif has vowed that the economy will be a “focus” under his leadership, noting that “we will have to shed sweat and blood to revive the economy”.

The change in government also raises concerns of the possible impact to Pakistan’s talks and any future agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help resolve the country’s economic issues. Recent talks regarding an IMF’s six billion USD programme were paused after Imran Khan announced a major relief package at the end of February. While the new government has indicated intentions to continue these discussions, negotiations regarding reforms may be a lengthy process. Pakistan now needs to manage a five billion USD financing gap through June to mitigate a balance of payment crisis, in addition to decreasing foreign currency reserves reportedly dwindling to nearly 11 billion USD.

In his first speech as prime minister, Sharif has announced that he anticipates the greater implementation of Chinese-backed projects in Pakistan as part of the 60 billion USD China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian supported these comments by noting that “no matter how the political situation changes in Pakistan, China will unswervingly adhere to its friendly policy toward Pakistan”. However, in recent years, Chinese-led projects and Chinese personnel working on CPEC developments have been the target of several insurgency attacks by separatists, particularly in Pakistan's Balochistan province. The greater implementation of CPEC developments could increase the risk of further separatist attacks against such infrastructure.

Sharif also announced plans to encourage better relations with India and the US. Shortly after Sharif’s appointment, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered his congratulations, noting that he “desires peace and stability in a region free of terror” to which Sharif responded by stating that the “peaceful settlement of outstanding disputes including Jammu & Kashmir is indispensable”. In his first speech to the nation, Sharif added that good ties with India will likely not be possible “without the resolution of the Kashmir dispute”. Diplomatic relations between the two countries had been strained over the Kashmir issue after India revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and divided the state into two union territories in 2019.

Political uncertainty is expected to continue into the start of Shehbaz Sharif’s term, with the country’s parties currently spanning an array of political leanings. It is understood that the current largest political parties, the two which led the recent motion of no-confidence, are now Sharif’s PML-N as well as the PPP. The latter is co-chaired by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Asif Ali Zardari, the son and husband (respectively) of deceased former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Historically, Pakistan has largely been dominated politically by the Sharif and Bhutto families, of which members of each family have been accused and/or convicted of corruption. During his campaigning in 2018, Imran Khan, with the support of the country’s military, had vowed to move away from this family-linked leadership. However, Sharif’s appointment may see the return of such politics.

Furthermore, despite the opposition's success in removing Imran Khan from office, the political situation of Pakistan remains fragile. With the new leadership, Sharif’s government now holds a small majority in Parliament, which may make passing legislation easier. However, slight changes in political alliances or resignations could quickly threaten this majority. In addition, although Khan has repeatedly called for new elections, Pakistan’s next general elections are not scheduled until August 2023.