Pakistan's no confidence voteEnd of the road for Imran Khan?
Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, is in the grip of some unfamiliar hustle and bustle. Clandestine meetings, special dinners and press conferences have been going on for days. Everything revolves around the question whether the opposition can muster enough votes in parliament to topple Imran Khan's government. The opposition alliance PDM (Pakistan Democratic Movement) an amalgamation of the parties PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz) of Nawaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari's PPP (Pakistan People's Party) and the Islamist JUI (Jamiat Ulama-e Islam) led by Fazal ur-Rahman is seeking to end Prime Minister Imran Khan's four-year term in office with a vote of no confidence.
Almost unnoticed by the public, the alliance has been able to gather enough votes for the no-confidence vote against Khan in recent weeks and months. The government now seems to be running out of options. Large rallies have been hastily organised, statements made and possible dissenters in the party's own ranks threatened with harsh consequences.
On 18 March, angry supporters of Khan's ruling PTI (Pakistan Tehirk-e Insaf) party entered Sindh House in Islamabad, where they tried to intimidate renegade MPs from their own party. Imran Khan has only a wafer-thin majority in parliament and every vote counts.
Meanwhile, the PTI is trying to have dissenters from within the party excluded from the vote with the help of the Constitutional Court, but again the prospects do not seem good. On Friday, Chief Justice Bandial commented during the hearing that no MP is bound by factional discipline.
Gripping political thriller in Islamabad
The country is thus witnessing one of the most exciting political thrillers of recent years, and its outcome remains uncertain. Imran Khan himself seems more aggressive than usual in his appearances. At one rally, he called opposition leaders bandits, thieves and stooges whom he would pursue mercilessly. Khan's verbal gaffes and personal attacks on opposition politicians are familiar to the Pakistani public, but what is new is that he is being criticised for them by his own coalition partners. In interview, the leader of the coalition party PML-Q (Pakistan Muslim League – Qauid-e Azam), Parvez Ilahi, advised the prime minister to "first think, consider and then speak."
It seems like electioneering is back and that is exactly what critics accuse Imran Khan of: even after four years in government, they say, he has remained in election campaign mode instead of addressing the country's real problems. His populist tirades against the opposition, however, have brought neither the promised millions of jobs nor the cheap housing for the poor. People are groaning under the worst inflation in decades. In the four years of Imran Khan's PTI government, there have been three different finance ministers, but a stringent fiscal policy is still missing.
As if all this were not problem enough, different camps have now formed within the PTI. The most prominent wing is led by Jahangir Tareen, a rich businessman from Punjab. Tareen was instrumental in Imran Khan's government formation. In 2018, his private jet jetted from one city to another to "convince" independent MPs in parliament to join the PTI. Rumour has it that money was involved. This cannot be verified, but such horse-trading has a long tradition in the country.
A few years ago, footage filmed secretly emerged of politicians, including those from the PTI, pocketing large sums of money in exchange for votes in parliament. Tareen himself is not a clean slate. In 2020, an investigation accused his consortium of sugar mills of market manipulation, tax evasion and corruption. This led to a rift between Khan and his former patron, even though outwardly they maintained a show of unity. Meanwhile, many PTI parliamentarians have allied themselves with Tareen. They accuse the prime minister of excluding elected PTI MPs from important decision-making processes and posts in favour of his own confidants and advisors. There is a lot of discontent with the party leadership, especially in Punjab province.
Retreat of the military from politics?
Besides the dissenters from within their own party, the ruling party's coalition partners are also considering their options. These are mainly the PML-Q (Pakistan Muslim League – Qaid-e Azam) and the MQM (Mutahidda Qaumi Movement). The PML-Q is dominated by the Chaudhry brothers from Gujrat, a large land-owning family from north Punjab. The MQM is the party of the Urdu-speaking minority from Karachi and Sindh province. Both have been negotiating at the highest level with representatives of the opposition PDM alliance in recent days. Insiders report an agreement in principle with PDM. But they are still keeping a low profile.
Shrewd tactician Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the PPP, one of the member parties of the opposition alliance, is suspected of being behind the whole political move. If the no-confidence vote against Imran Khan on 28 March succeeds, it would be a sensation. For Khan rose to power with the help of the powerful military. His failure would indicate the military's withdrawal from politics, or at least a disengagement of the armed forces from Khan's PTI party. In a press conference a few days ago, the spokesperson of the armed forces declared that they were neutral and would not interfere in political developments.
Pakistanis are eagerly awaiting the showdown between the government and the opposition in Islamabad on 28 March.
© Qantara.de 2022
Mohammad Luqman is an Islamic scholar and South Asia expert with a special research focus on Pakistan..