The beginning of a new chapter: Current political developments in Pakistan
Author: Nicola Costantin
Department: Pakistan Team
The nuclear-armed Islamic nation has been in political turmoil for weeks after Pakistani lawmakers have voted on a crucial no-confidence vote to remove the former prime minister (PM) Imran Khan from power.
The core aim of this article is to explain what happened in Pakistan in these weeks to shed light on this new but complicated beginning of a new chapter for the Pakistani nation. Specifically, it will explain what the vote of no confidence means and how this is regulated in the Pakistani constitution. It will also briefly look at the motivations for why ex-PM Khan lost the position. The second part of the article will zoom in on the opposition party and its leader, Shehbaz Sharif, explaining his story and political views.
The vote of no-confidence
This is not the first time in the parliamentary history of Pakistan that a no-confidence vote has been raised by the opposition parties against the PM of Pakistan. The first time happened in 1989, when a no-confidence motion was filed by the opposition against the first female PM of Pakistan Bhutto (Zee Media Bureau, 2022). However, a total of 125 of the 237 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, voted for the removal of the PM, and thus she managed to keep her government (Zee Media Bureau, 2022; Deseret News, 2022). In August 2006, for the second time, another no-confidence motion was filed by the opposition against the former PM Shaukat Aziz (Zee Media Bureau, 2022). This time, however, the vote of no-confidence did not go forward because the opposition managed to get only 136 votes while 171 were cast in favour of the former PM (Bokhari, 2006). The vote, nevertheless, generated widespread protests which continued for more than 14 days, also connected with the murder of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, a Baluch nationalist (Bokhari, 2006). At the beginning of March 2022, a third no-confidence vote in the Parliamentary history of Pakistan was presented, this time against Imran Khan. Khan, 69, has been facing mounting criticisms, mostly linked to the bad economic situation, namely high inflation and rising deficits (Al Jazeera, 2022a). Therefore, the opposition saw a possibility to change the fate of the Country. After Khan’s allies and partners started to abandon him, the opposition stormed the parliament alleging that they had reached the numbers needed to win the no-confidence vote in the National Assembly.
But how does a no-confidence vote work under the Pakistani constitution? Under the constitution, a PM is elected by a majority of the lower house National Assembly, which counts 342 (The Constitution of The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 2012). The majority is formed by 172, or more, votes. This same number of votes is needed to pass a no-confidence vote against him and his cabinet (The Constitution of The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 2012). Consequently, a PM could still survive a no-confidence vote if he gets fewer votes than the opposition, but only if the latter does not get the requisite 172 votes. On the other hand, if the PM loses the vote, the parliament can continue to function until its five-year tenure ends in August 2023, after which a general election is due within 60 days (Al Jazeera, 2022b). When a no-confidence motion is presented and tabled before the National Assembly, the speaker of the latter has to carry out the vote no sooner than three days and no later than seven days after the motion is tabled (Al Jazeera, 2022b).
If the motion passes, it will hold a vote in the National Assembly to elect a new PM to serve until the next election. Any party represented in the Assembly can choose its own candidate. However, due to the obvious political instability that the vote of no-confidence brings, the new PM has the discretion to call a general election immediately, without waiting until the next election, and therefore creating a new majority within the Parliament.
The opposition party and leader
The no-confidence vote is led by the main opposition parties, namely the Pakistan Muslim League – Newaz (PMLN) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) (Almeida, 2022). These groups were confident about a victory in the motion due to the disastrous results reflected in Pakistani society (Almeida, 2022). Economic mismanagement, alleged corruption among the different ministers, and mostly the violent rhetoric against the opposition have created a strong dissatisfaction within Khan’s government (Almeida, 2022). Khan, indeed, gained a precarious position in the Parliament in the last period, embodied by the dissident PTI Member of National Assembly (MNA), Noor Alam Khan, who claim to be just one of them, at least, 24 dissidents that were willing to vote against the PM (Saifi et al., 2022). Therefore, at the time of the no-confidence vote, an en masse resignation of all of Khan’s lawmakers from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party led to the victory of the opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif as the country’s new Prime Minister (Saifi et al., 2022).
Khan acted quickly to try to bypass the no-confidence motion. He decided to call for parliament to be dissolved, alleging that behind this vote, there was a “foreign conspiracy” led by the West (Baloch & Ellis-Petersen, 2022a). Khan continued by saying that almost 200 members of the opposition had colluded with the US, though Washington has denied involvement, calling for new elections (Baloch & Ellis-Petersen, 2022a). The opposition has alleged Khan’s move was in violation of Pakistan’s constitution and simply an attempt to retain power (Baloch & Ellis-Petersen, 2022a). They accused the PM of treason and submitted a petition to the Supreme Court on Sunday challenging the actions. However, Marriyum Aurangzeb, an opposition spokesperson, said she expected the court to “give a ruling as per the constitutional provisions” but expressed concern at the “chequered history” of the court’s partiality and tendency to rule in favour of the military and establishment (Baloch & Ellis-Petersen, 2022a).
The delayed verdict pushed Pakistan deeper into political instability, but in the end, the Supreme Court ruled that the PM acted unconstitutionally, ordering to go ahead with the no-confidence vote (Baloch & Ellis-Petersen, 2022b).
The chief justice of Pakistan, Umar Ata Bandial, said Khan had violated the law in his attempt to stop the vote, which was widely expected to oust the PM, allowing him to go ahead with the confidence vote (Baloch & Ellis-Petersen, 2022b). This paved the path to the rise of the 31st prime minister of Pakistan, Shahbaz Sharif.
Shehbaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League – Newaz party and younger brother of three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, received 174 out of 342 votes in Monday’s vote in parliament. He is set to serve as prime minister until the next general election, which is expected to take place in 2023 (Saifi et al., 2022). Differently from the previous PM, Sharif has conserved a harmonious relationship with the military sector. Moreover, he was a popular chief minister in the most populous province and politically important Punjab region (Saifi et al., 2022). He became famous for his impressive administrative and infrastructure projects in the province, which saw advances in the education and industrial sectors (Saifi et al., 2022). When he was nominated as the new PM, Sharif spoke in favour of unity across the country including in his coalition government. He continued by stating that he will start introducing a ten percent increase in pensions and raising the monthly minimum wage rate, trying to, at the least, slow down extreme poverty (Saifi et al., 2022).
In the international realm, Sharif was fundamental in driving the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, creating a positive relationship with China (Saifi et al., 2022). However, the most important aspect to detect in his political position is the emphasis on a peaceful settlement of outstanding disputes including Jammu and Kashmir (PTI, 2022). In his inaugural speech, he said that his country strongly desires “peaceful and cooperative” ties with India. Sharif had raised the issue of abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and alleged that the people in the Valley were bleeding and Pakistan will provide them with “diplomatic and moral support”, besides raising the matter at every international fora (PTI, 2022). The Indian PM applauded 70-year-old Sharif on his election as the Prime Minister of Pakistan and highlighted that India desires peace and stability in a region free of terror so that “we can focus on our development challenges and ensure the well-being and prosperity of our people” (PTI, 2022).
However, Sharif is facing charges of alleged corruption, and he is not the only member of the wealthy Sharif family (Vonberg & Saifi, 2018). Indeed, his brother, Nawaz Sharif was sentenced to ten years in prison and handed a $10.5 million fine over corruption charges in 2018 (Vonberg & Saifi, 2018). As well as Mariam Nawaz, seen as Sharif’s political heir, was also found guilty and is facing seven years in prison and a two million pound fine (Vonberg, 2018). However, the new PM did not accept the verdict, calling it “flawed” and “politically motivated” (Vonberg & Saifi, 2018).
This political change left a great deal of uncertainty among the Pakistani population. The removal of the former PM, Imran Khan, has brought tens of thousands of protesters on the streets, marching in several cities in his support (Al Jazeera, 2022c). Since then, thousands of Khan’s supporters, mostly youth, have marched waving party flags and shouting “we want Imran Khan back” (Al Jazeera, 2022c). His supporters are alleging that the US is behind the PM’s removal (Al Jazeera, 2022c). The previous PM immediately posted on Twitter that Pakistan has never seen “such crowds come out so spontaneously and in such numbers in our history” (Khan, 2022). He continually repeated the allegations that a foreign conspiracy was orchestrating this change of government, concluding by saying that “the freedom struggle begins again today” (Khan, 2022). He even called his social media supporters “real frontline warriors” of the sovereignty and democracy of Pakistan against the US regime change conspiracy (Khan, 2022).
Human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), fear a new wave of violence within the society, urging the new government to “deter supporters from violence” (Al Jazeera, 2022d). Also before the no-confidence vote, HRW reported threats of violence and detention of members of the Parliament, which risks creating a strong polarisation in the society. For instance, on March 10th, 2022, the police forces in the capital, Islamabad, thundered in the parliamentarians’ apartments detaining, for four hours, two opposition MPs along with 17 other opposition activists (Hussain, 2022).
In conclusion, Pakistan has started to write down another chapter of its history, and only time can tell the course it will take. Khan has been ousted, but he can still count on huge popular support, as the protests have demonstrated. On May 20th, 2022, Khan will address a mega public rally in Multan wherein he will keep asking his supporters to continue the fight against the new government. Sharif, on the other hand, presented himself as more moderate and open to dialogue, with all sectors of society and internationally. However, 2023 is almost here, and new elections must be held.
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