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No-confidence move: Victories in defeat for Imran Khan?

The antagonists of Imran Khan's fate, may have delivered him a political boost for the next election

By Zeeshan Ahmad |
Design: Mohsin Alam
PUBLISHED April 03, 2022

If there is one adage that can perennially apply to Pakistani politics, it is the one that dooms those who fail to learn from history to repeat it. Even though stability is what the country needs the most, good or bad leadership notwithstanding (what is good or bad anyway?), we seem trapped in the political adaptation of the Hollywood classic Groundhog Day. We relive the same political experience over and over, just as the protagonist relived the same day.

Today, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s immediate fate seems inevitable. By the end of the day, barring a ‘miracle’, he will vacate the top office. The curse afflicting our country’s democratic experience will have struck again and yet another prime minister will be sent packing prematurely.

Certain circles will no doubt gloat over their ‘victory’ – some vocally and others in private. As has been discussed and dissected to death in print and electronic media, Imran and his government’s misplaced priorities and lacklustre performance will be pointed towards again, and rightfully so. The premier, for all his proclamations of well-meaning intentions, has struggled with good governance.

For Pakistan at large and democracy in particular, this is anything but a win. Our politics have once again taken many steps back for each that moved forward. The situation left behind for whosoever picks up the pieces will hardly be any easier than it was for Imran and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

In the short run, at least, the establishment can surely be said to come out on top at the culmination of the present political crisis. While it has in recent days and weeks, affirmed and reaffirmed its neutrality, political science would remind us that being ‘neutral’ in politics is an oxymoron. It certainly raises one of two questions: if the establishment has to convince us that it is neutral, was it not before? If it was, then what changed between then and now?

Implicit in either admission would be an endorsement of the charge of ‘hybridisation’ against the current regime. If Imran Khan and his government’s survival were so contingent on counting the establishment in its corner, then whatever criticism the prime minister faces must also be shared by the latter.

Some chatter among observers suggests that the establishment, while raising eyebrows at Imran’s brash approach to geopolitics, took special offence at him stating ‘absolutely not’ to the question of a US presence on our country’s soil.

While it is true that geopolitical reorientations are generational projects that cannot be seen to fruition in one five-year term, that specific move should hardly be counted as a ‘transgression’. The establishment may have had a long history of sometimes-beneficial engagement with the US and it may be right – as the army chief reiterated the day before – that there is no need to fall into any camp at present. Still, the writing for a fruitful Pakistan-US relationship has been on the wall for sometime. Last year, following a trip to Pakistan and India, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman minced no words stating that Washington no longer sees itself “building a broad relationship” with Islamabad. While former president Trump did have a positive face-to-face meeting with Premier Imran, incumbent President Biden has yet to drop even a phone call.

Indeed, even to novice followers of superpower grand strategy, it is hard to see where Pakistan can fit into present US plans. We are certainly not going to assist Washington’s efforts to contain Chinese influence, especially not with the growing role the latter is playing in our country’s economic future. Even if we could or wanted to, the US would rather have India in its camp. Not just over us, but over many other major allies – just ask Turkey about ‘double-standards’.

While Imran’s foreign-backed regime change claim may be more of a ‘hail Mary’ to ensure political relevance than an actual threat, the influence of certain nations on fora like FATF and IMF are partially responsible for Pakistan’s present economic predicament.

For the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement, Imran’s ouster will most likely prove to be a short-lived victory. On one hand, with so many egos involved, there is high chance the alliance will fizzle out faster than it came about. While its various leaders have their political senses sharp enough to sniff the opportunity for ousting incumbents, if the past is any guide to go by, that is just as far any political collaboration can go.

Whichever faction or combination of them inherits the government from Imran, it will likely find coming to power a poisoned chalice. The PTI government is certainly responsible for mismanaging the economy, but in its present state, even economic geniuses can do little more than apply band-aids. When your entire platform revolves around inflation and unemployment, not being able to make things better can prove your downfall come next election. One does wonder: if Imran and his team were so ‘incompetent’, why jump the trigger to oust them? Why not wait for them to fail into political oblivion?

In a way, this is the best thing that could happen for Imran and his political future. Up until the beginning of this year, it did seem that if left to his own devices, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf would find it very difficult to canvas support for the next election. Debates on competency aside, with the best of intentions or the worst, the PTI government has failed to deliver on most of its campaign promises. It was inevitable that it would. It is always easier to make people believe.

By playing up the regime change conspiracy theory and by positioning himself as a political martyr, Imran has given his party a second-wind, albeit in some ways at the cost of Pakistan’s image before other nations. The electoral impact of his narrative has been immediately felt as PTI leads by a wide margin in the second phase of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s local government polls. Interestingly, it has received votes in parts that never voted for the party before.

Whether he is voted out on Sunday or whether he calls early elections, Imran Khan at the moment has political momentum on his side. There are a few cards that can always be counted on for mass appeal in Pakistan – the anti-US card is one of them and being a ‘well-meaning’, ‘non-corrupt’ political martyr is another. The PDM may think time may sap some momentum away from PTI, but if it even manages to stay together, it may feel the same heat it brought to bear against Imran.

Coming back to the movie Groundhog Day, the protagonist of the movie is only able to break the endless loop once learning the right lessons results in his complete transformation into a better person. One hopes that no matter today’s outcome, the prime minister at the time of writing and his team will use this experience to draw the right lessons and not the wrong ones. At the end of the day, Pakistan depends on it.