In Imran Khan’s Ouster, a Reminder of Pakistani Military’s Power

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In the last hours before the midnight deadline for a no-confidence motion in Pakistan’s Parliament, the capital was on edge.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s allies in parliament had spent Saturday working through whatever delay they could, clogging up angry speeches denouncing the opposition as traitors. Around government buildings, military troops were put on alert and prison vans were deployed.

Reports of escalating tensions between Khan and top military leaders stoked fears of more unrest and sparked a wave of denials from both sides. As midnight approached, a preemptive petition was filed in Pakistan’s high court to try to block any attempt by Khan to fire the country’s powerful army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, court documents show.

In the end, Khan was still forced out by a majority vote of no confidence. On Sunday, many observers expressed relief that the crisis did not end with a military intervention after a remarkably tense week even by the standards of Pakistan’s tumultuous political history.

Khan had fought bitterly for his political survival after key military leaders appeared to withdraw their support for his government, and after a group of lawmakers including some defectors from the prime minister’s coalition moved to remove him from office.

Khan, a populist leader and former cricket star, denounced his political opponents as traitors plotting with US officials to remove him from power, a claim denied in both Pakistan and the United States. He brought tens of thousands of people into the streets in a stark reminder of his past as an opposition leader who could bring the capital to a standstill with mass riots. And he defied the constitution to dissolve parliament and block the no-confidence vote, a move Pakistan’s Supreme Court later overturned.

But even at a moment hailed by some as a triumph for Pakistan’s fragile democratic institutions, the crisis offered a stark reminder that in the country’s deeply compromised political system, powerful military leaders still hold the reins.

Many politicians accuse the military of helping Khan become prime minister in 2018, saying the security forces swept away the opposition in a campaign of coercion and intimidation. Military officials have denied those allegations, as have Khan and his aides.

But after Khan strayed from the foreign policy priorities of military leaders and clashed with them over major military appointments, they helped orchestrate his downfall, analysts say.

“This fits into the larger historical arc of a civilian government falling out of favor with the establishment, namely the Pakistan Army, and that leads to their removal from office,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Just the mechanisms through which things are happening now are different because of the constitutional changes made over the years to guard against the establishment.”

Now, there is the potential for more turmoil as Pakistan heads into highly contentious elections in the coming months, with its parties even more bitterly polarized.

Throughout Pakistan’s 75-year history as an independent nation, the military has seized power in three coups, often profoundly changing the country’s political norms. But Khan’s bid to stay in office was the first time a civilian leader openly violated the constitution for his own political benefit, analysts say. And during his time in office, he increasingly used the country’s institutions to harass his opponents and critics, especially journalists.

“Even people who might have been sympathetic to Imran have seen the constitutional vandalism and chaos caused by the past week,” said Cyril Almeida, a former editor and columnist for Dawn, a leading Pakistani newspaper. “Now, across the political spectrum, it is understood that the military’s interference in politics is undesirable.”

Some analysts saw Khan’s moves as further evidence that the country’s political institutions remain vulnerable to elite abuse. But even after the motion of no confidence and his loss of public favor from the military, he is still in the picture.

Many noted that military officials took pains on Sunday to deny reports that Khan had tried to fire the army chief or further discredit him. And the former prime minister is widely expected to try to rally his party loyalists — and there are many, still motivated by his avowed platform of fighting corruption and helping the poor — in elections expected this fall.

But at a time when Pakistan’s dire crises require at least some consensus to address, the looming campaign is shaping up to be an existential ideological struggle between political blocs.

Pakistan is grappling with runaway inflation that has squeezed the poor and the middle class alike. Its huge national debt represents an additional drag on its sinking economy. Violent extremism is on the rise, with a return to the militant attacks that plagued the country in recent decades and continued impunity for leaders of the Islamist movement who appear to control both justice and public discourse.

But on Sunday night, in a move that apparently kicked off Khan’s upcoming election campaign, thousands of his supporters flooded the streets of Islamabad, where the tone was more about nationalism and division than issues.

Long lines of cars packed the main street of the city. Supporters raised Khan’s party flags in the air and chanted: “America’s friends are traitors!” – an echo of Mr. Khan’s claim that the United States had conspired with political opposition leaders to remove him from office.

Large protests were also held in Lahore and Karachi as crowds turned out to support their ousted leader.

While public support may not be enough for Mr. Khan’s party to win a significant number of seats in the upcoming election, it still enjoys significant support within its ranks, opening the door for its possible return to power. prime minister’s office in the future after top brass with whom he disagrees withdraw.

For now, his charged rhetoric has left an already deeply polarized public even more divided.

“I am increasingly convinced that what we are seeing is not simply a change of government but a change of policy in Pakistan,” said Adil Najam, dean of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. “This rhetoric of extreme personal attack, visceral hatred for the other, and both sides calling each other traitors is going to define the fabric of politics for many months and years to come.”

Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud contributed report.

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