On April 10, Imran Khan’s three-plus years as prime minister of Pakistan came to an unceremonious end. His government fell after losing a no-confidence vote, a standard procedural tool in parliamentary democracies for ousting prime ministers who have lost their majority in the legislature. But this was the first time in Pakistan’s history that the head of the government was removed through a constitutional procedure rather than by a military coup or a judicial ruling. The vote ended a political crisis spawned by Khan’s stubborn refusal to yield power and his attempts to override any checks on his position and authority.

But the toppling of Khan’s government is hardly an unmitigated triumph of Pakistani democracy. Instead, it is proof of the abiding influence of the military in dictating the country’s politics. Khan rose to power on the shoulders of Pakistan’s generals in 2018. Fed up with the country’s two main political parties, whose leaders they had long accused of corruption and even disloyalty to the state, the generals elevated Khan, a former cricket player who had founded his own party two decades earlier. But after nearly four years in which Khan’s government grossly mismanaged the economy, alienated external allies including China and the United States, and bickered with the military, the generals decided that his time was up. A new civilian coalition government has replaced that of Khan’s, but the military will remain the country’s final political arbiter.

The Rise and Fall of the Hybrid Regime

Khan’s ouster brings to an end a peculiar hybrid regime in which the prime minister effectively ruled with the blessing—and the direction—of General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the head of Pakistan’s army. Khan came to power in 2018, after the country’s chief intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, reportedly manipulated elections to deny victory to the Pakistan Muslim League, or PML-N, a center-right party headed by Khan’s predecessor Nawaz Sharif. Khan’s government depended almost entirely on support from the army through the ISI. At crucial moments, the ISI both threatened and induced opposition politicians to help Khan maintain his majority in parliament. The regime brooked little dissent, harshly cracking down on critics in the media, intimidating political activists, and jailing vocal opposition leaders, especially from the PML-N, on unsubstantiated corruption charges.

Soon, however, the Khan-Bajwa alliance began to fray under the weight of poor economic performance and persistent accusations of corruption. Pledging to create a “new” Pakistan, Khan made lofty promises (to eradicate corruption in 90 days, for instance, and to construct five million public housing units) and proposed bizarre development theories (including Khan’s widely mocked “eggonomics,” his scheme to encourage poor rural women to raise chickens) while claiming credit for infrastructure projects initiated by the previous PML-N government.

Khan’s toppling is proof of the abiding influence of the military in dictating the country’s politics.

His governance failures were particularly palpable in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, where Khan exercised direct control over the local administration behind a titular provincial leader who was really only a puppet for the central government. The military came to regret its close association with Khan, fearing that its jealously protected public image was being tarnished by misgovernance and allegations of rampant graft in Punjab, as well as by the overall deterioration of the Pakistani economy. In 2018, when Khan came to power, Pakistan’s GDP was growing at a decade high of 5.8 percent. But the economy contracted sharply once Khan took over and has since stagnated even after accounting for the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under Khan, inflation rose from 5.1 percent to 12.7 percent, unemployment spiked, and external debt grew from $95 billion to $130 billion, a record addition of $35 billion in just three years.

Differences over foreign policy also strained ties between Khan and Bajwa. Khan’s harsh criticism of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, and his decision to block trade with India contradicted Bajwa’s more conciliatory approach toward New Delhi. The prime minister’s ill-advised trip to Moscow in February, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—“What a time I have come, so much excitement,” he said after landing in Moscow on the day before Russian tanks rolled across the border—also led to a rare public rebuke from Bajwa.

The breakup of the hybrid regime was probably inevitable after Bajwa decided to appoint a new intelligence chief last autumn to replace the controversial General Faiz Hameed, a Khan ally who aspired to become army chief. In early October 2021, the army announced the appointment of a new director general of the ISI. Khan tried to delay the appointment for weeks before finally relenting under military pressure. Although he justified his stalling by claiming that Hameed was essential to addressing the “critical situation” in neighboring Afghanistan (where the Taliban had retaken power only months before), critics believed Khan couldn’t stomach losing the general, whose help he would need ahead of the next parliamentary elections scheduled for 2023.

KHAN’S OUSTER

Khan’s open falling out with Bajwa encouraged the opposition in early February to unite to try to oust the prime minister through a no-confidence vote with help from his disgruntled coalition partners and defectors from his own party. Under pressure from the opposition and facing the loss of his parliamentary majority, Khan lashed out in typical populist style to brand his opponents as enemies of the people, accuse them of horse-trading, and deride them as “thieves” and “rats.” The military declared its intent to stay on the sidelines, but Khan publicly mocked its purported neutrality (in his words, “only animals are neutral”) as a betrayal. In a last-ditch bid to save his party from fracturing, Khan’s government asked the Supreme Court to bar members of parliament who leave their party from holding public office for life. The Supreme Court did not oblige, and the case remains undecided.

With the generals abandoning him and the judges refusing to play along, a desperate Khan turned to another well-known populist gambit. He accused the opposition of colluding with a “foreign power” to remove him from office. Waving a white paper at a rally of his supporters on the eve of the no-confidence vote, Khan alleged that he had documentary proof that a foreign government had directly threatened him for following an independent foreign policy. He later upped the ante by making his accusation explicit, pointing fingers at the White House. Addressing party leaders, Khan cited a cable from Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States in which the ambassador reported that Donald Lu, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, had warned him of dire consequences if Khan stayed in power; Washington was supposedly fed up with Khan’s anti-American policies, especially his tilt toward Russia and, according to one of his close aides, his refusal to allow U.S. drone bases on Pakistani territory.  

Khan has long employed anti-U.S. rhetoric for populist ends, portraying himself as a genuine Pakistani and ridiculing his opponents as “slaves of America.” Although Khan had a cordial rapport with President Donald Trump, he took umbrage at the fact that President Joe Biden never called him after assuming office in January 2021. His outlandish conspiracy claims have deepened the diplomatic chill in bilateral ties that followed the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, April 2022
Supporters of Imran Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, April 2022
Fayaz Aziz / Reuters

Khan’s anti-American posturing couldn’t change matters in Pakistan’s lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, where his coalition had fallen apart thanks to key defections. Facing certain defeat, Khan wanted to force a snap election. The deputy speaker, a Khan loyalist, rejected the opposition’s “foreign-sponsored” no-confidence motion, and President Arif Alvi, another Khan loyalist, dissolved the National Assembly to pave the way for a fresh parliamentary election. However, the country’s Supreme Court intervened; it declared these moves unconstitutional and mandated that the no-confidence vote should proceed.

Khan tried everything to hold on, including having his loyalist speaker repeatedly adjourn the parliamentary session convened for the vote and ultimately threatening to invite the military to assume power. Media reports indicated that Khan was prepared to fire Bajwa and replace him with Hameed. But Khan reportedly backed off after a tense meeting with senior military officials, according to the BBC. The vote went ahead, and the opposition finally ousted Khan, replacing him with Shehbaz Sharif, the president of the PML-N, at the head of a broad-based coalition comprising not only the PML-N but also the Pakistan Peoples Party (a center-left party that has had several stints in power in recent decades) and a host of smaller groups. Rather than contest the vote, Khan and his remaining allies resigned from Parliament. He has since urged his supporters to oppose the “imported government” through protests, raising the prospect of continued political turmoil in the country. Khan’s supporters are blaming the judiciary and the military for his ouster. Their targeted attacks on Bajwa and the ISI chief on social media (#Bajwatraitor trended on Twitter for days) and in protests on the streets ultimately pushed the army to close ranks and publicly reject Khan’s claims of a conspiracy.

DEMOCRATIC MIRAGE?

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has a checkered record, including a habit of legitimizing military coups, but its decision to uphold the constitution appears as a victory for the rule of law in Pakistan. The opposition’s success in deposing Khan seems like a rare democratic win in a country that is no stranger to democratic reversals and breakdowns. At least on the surface, Khan’s departure represents the end of the military’s hybrid regime, the halfway house between democracy and dictatorship in which the military has ruled behind a thinly veiled civilian façade since 2018. But his toxic populist rhetoric has left the country deeply polarized.

Sharif faces tough challenges, notably the revival of Pakistan’s faltering economy, a tall order that will be made all the more difficult by the push-and-pull nature of power sharing in coalition governments. He will likely have a less rocky relationship with the military than did his older brother, Nawaz, who was more assertive in exercising his constitutional authority over the military during his tenure as prime minister between 2013 and 2017. The younger Sharif has typically taken a more accommodating approach to civil-military relations in Pakistan, informed by his belief that civilian governments should include the military in governing the country. He is unlikely to risk upsetting the generals.

Even after Khan’s removal, Pakistan’s perennially skewed civil-military relations will not change. The military’s so-called neutrality during this political crisis was not neutrality at all but a position that favored the opposition. It was the military’s crucial last-minute push that convinced Khan that his time was up. The muscle of the military, not the verdict of the ballot, both brought Khan to power and toppled him.

The lesson from the hybrid debacle is clear: the military’s interference in political and judicial processes has fomented instability, undermined the rule of law, and arrested the development of independent political institutions capable of governing a multiethnic society. Even though the army has signaled its intent to stay out of politics, old habits die hard. For now, the military is likely to take a back seat and let the civilian government tackle the economic crisis. It will help normalize Pakistan’s important bilateral relationships, including mending fences with the United States and assuaging Chinese concerns about disorder in Pakistan by reviving key economic projects that had stalled under Khan. But there should be little doubt that the generals will continue to dominate Pakistan’s domestic politics and foreign policy—and they will be ready to intervene if they determine that the politicians are not up to the task.

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  • AQIL SHAH is an Associate Professor in the Department of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
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