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'Imran Khan is down, but most certainly not out'

By Rediff Special
Last updated on: March 26, 2022 09:18 IST
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'He could indeed survive [the no confidence vote] even as he faces his biggest political test.'

IMAGE: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan gives the keynote speech at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation council of foreign ministers in Islamabad March 22, 2022. Photograph: Saiyna Bashir/Reuters

"Economic misgovernance has been one of the biggest knocks on Imran Khan," says Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Programme and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, the Washington, DC, think-tank. He is a leading specialist on Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

"I don't think the military on the whole has turned on Imran Khan. But when you're the Pakistani prime minister and your relationship with the army chief has soured, that can cause you major problems," Michael Kugelman tells Rediff.com in an e-mail interview.

The first of a two-part conversation:

 

Imran Khan is fighting for his survival as he faces a no confidence vote and has lost the support of the powerful Pakistan army. What are the reasons for Mr Khan's precarious plight after coming to power on the promise of a 'Naya Pakistan' four years ago?

It's an important question to ask, given that until recently there was no indication that Khan would face serious questions about his political survival. Relations with the military were cordial. The Opposition had struggled to unite. Khan easily survived a confidence vote a year ago.

What has changed is that the Opposition, after earlier failed efforts, has finally been able to capitalise on public discontent about worsening inflation and wider economic stress.

Economic misgovernance has been one of the biggest knocks on Khan, with even many PTI supporters admitting his economic policies have done little. With many economic indicators, especially inflation, worsening in recent months, the opposition has had plenty to run with.

Additionally, as the verbal attacks of Khan and his party allies on opposition leaders have increased and intensified, the opposition has likely vowed to set aside differences to do whatever is necessary to develop a plan to oust the premier.

The other factor is civil-military relations. The spat between Khan and the army chief on the succession process for the next intelligence chief was critical. It injected tensions into what had been a fairly workable relationship.

I don't think the military on the whole has turned on Khan. But when you're the Pakistani prime minister and your relationship with the army chief has soured, that can cause you major problems.

Additionally, with (former ISI chief Lieutenant General) Faiz Hameed, a close and powerful Khan ally, now out of the political picture in his new role as a corps commander, this puts Khan in a more vulnerable position as well.

He has put political adversaries behind bars in the past and has now warned dissident PTI MNAs that no one will marry their children if they vote against him. Can Imran Khan save his prime ministership by such tropes? Does he have the tools to counter this?

If tough love were an effective tactic, maybe such nasty rhetoric could win the PTI dissidents back. But I doubt it.

This is likely yet another case of Khan resorting to the ugliest forms of populism, whereby he capitalises on his base's anger about so-called PTI turncoats and tries to fire them up.

Khan's best chances of bringing the dissidents back would be through negotiation and persuasion.

The courts may end up being an ally as well. One supreme court justice has already issued an opinion that suggests the PTI could disqualify renegade MNAs who vote for Khan's ouster, per a constitutional clause. But that didn't represent a formal ruling, and it's unclear when the apex court will deliver its decision, which means a lot of uncertainty about the disqualification question that could continue up to the time of the vote.

If there's one strong motivation to prompt a politician to reconsider their position on an issue, it would be making them think their political career could be over if they stick with that position. This all benefits Khan, as some of the renegade PTI members may opt not to vote for his ouster.

Can he survive the no confidence vote?

He could indeed survive it.

Khan is down, but he is most certainly not out, even if he now faces his biggest political test.

To be sure, the numbers aren't in Khan's favour with the votes the Opposition has and also with the likelihood of many PTI coalition partners voting with the Opposition, as they have suggested they will.

Let's be clear: If the PTI coalition partners come out en masse and vote in favour of the no confidence motion, it's game over for Khan. This is why the coalition allies are the difference maker here.

However, Khan gets a boost if we assume that some dissident PTI MNAs won't end up crossing the aisle and voting for the no confidence motion, in order to safeguard their political careers. This once again underscores the critical role played by the PTI allies.

Khan and his fellow PTI leaders will be sure to do everything they can to convince a critical mass of legislators representing the coalition partners to stay with Khan.

One of the core grievances of the PTI dissidents is Khan's refusal to remove the chief minister of Punjab. Khan has given no indication he'll do so, but if he did, that would do a lot to bring them back to his side.

Hasn't his position become untenable after the Pakistan generals' reported decision last week that he must go after the OIC summit? Can any Pak PM survive without the army's support?

I'm not sure I'd agree that the army on the whole has decided he must go. Khan's relationship with [Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed] Bajwa has taken a plunge, and that's not good for Khan's prospects.

But the army isn't a monolith, and I don't necessarily think the whole institution has turned on Khan -- though there's reason to believe it has grown increasingly concerned about his inability to fix the economy.

It appears the military has opted to take a careful approach to the crisis, though that can certainly be read as quiet approval of the events leading to the no confidence vote.

We haven't heard much from the military on the political crisis, and the generals appear to simply be sitting back and letting events unfold. Can that be seen as its tacit endorsement of the Opposition's maneuvering to carry out the no confidence motion? Perhaps so.

Imran Khan was seen as the army's candidate when he came to power. He was clear that he had good relations with the generals unlike Nawaz Sharif for instance.
When did the generals fall out of love with Imran? Was it because they had doubts about his competence and that he was incapable of extricating Pakistan from its current economic mire?

In retrospect, it's surprising that Khan didn't clash more with the military, even though he has long been the army's favourite son. He has a strong personality that would make one think he's not willing to defer. To retain the support of the army, you need to be willing to defer.

Additionally, while his policy views generally align with the military, there could have been divergences. His harsh criticism of the West, for example, is likely concerning to the military, which places a greater premium on closer ties with the West than does Khan and the rest of a party that emphasises populist themes in a country where anti-West sentiment, and especially anti-US sentiment, can be strong.

Clearly, however, the general convergence in views between Khan and the military allowed them to get around any potential tensions. Also, Khan badly wanted the job of premier, and his desire to keep his job likely prompted his willingness to cede policy space to the military.

I am still not convinced, even today, with Khan fighting for his political life, that the entire Pakistani military establishment has turned against him. As I said earlier, it has likely grown concerned about his inability to fix the economic crisis.

Additionally, he has ratcheted up the anti-Western rhetoric so much, even for him, that this could worry the military about the future of Pakistan's relations with the West, which include important trade relationships.

But I think in the end it comes down to Bajwa, not the military on the whole. And if there's one general you don't want to alienate, it's the army chief.

In the end, Khan chose not to defer when it came to his insistence on keeping his allies on his side. This explains the spat with Bajwa over the ISI succession process.

There is also the Faiz Hameed imbroglio when Imran Khan refused to act on the army chief's recommendation last year that Lieutenant General Hameed be moved out of the ISI and Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum be appointed in his place. Was that the breaking point between Imran Khan and General Bajwa?
Did Bajwa see Imran's reluctance to act on Hamid and Anjum as his way of dividing the generals and build a support base among generals who have never really accepted Bajwa's extension as army chief?

This issue is what caused the rift in the Khan-Bajwa relationship, though there's a lot that's still unclear about it. Did Khan not want Faiz to be replaced, or did he just want to delay his replacement?

It may well be the latter, given that Faiz, during the final period of his term as DG ISI, was involved in many activities important for Khan -- including negotiations with the Taliban as it was trying to form its government in Afghanistan. Khan would have had an incentive to delay Hameed's reassignment to corps commander until Hameed wrapped up what he was working on as DG ISI.

Additionally, Khan should have had no reason to oppose Hameed eventually being transferred to his corps commander position, as that puts him on the path to being appointed as the next army chief. And Khan, of course, would like to see Hameed in that role.

At any rate, the significance of the ISI chief successor matter is heightened by Khan's closeness to Hameed. This means the stakes were high, and it will be read -- rightly or wrongly -- as a case of Khan fighting to keep his ally close, and of Bajwa wanting to deprive Khan of that ally.

There is talk that Imran may replace General Bajwa as army chief before the non confidence vote which dissident PTI MNA Dr Aamir Liaquat Hussan has warned him against. Do you think Imran would be foolhardy to attempt such a change? Does he believe a new army chief can stall his exit?

Regardless of what the military thinks about Bajwa these days, now would be the worst possible time for Khan to make such a dramatic move.

This would upset many parliamentarians, including some of those, like dissident PTI MNAs and those belonging to the coalition allies, that Khan is trying to convince to support him in the no confidence vote. And I can't imagine the military would want to see this change happen before November, when Bajwa's term is up.

Sacking Bajwa now would put Khan in a more politically precarious position going into the no confidence vote -- and he's already in a lot of political hot water as it is.

IMAGE: Imran Khan with General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan's army chief.

What is the likelihood of General Bajwa taking charge of the country? Or is martial law no longer the political flavour in Pakistan?
Do you think the Pakistani people, fed up as they are of the political tumult in their country, would welcome a spell of army rule for a change?

The military is popular in Pakistan, so there will always be those that would welcome its formal return to power and view it as the one actor that can come in and clean up the civilians' mess.

That said, times have changed. With the hybrid regime model we've seen in recent years, the military has increased its role in domestic policy, giving it more influence in areas beyond foreign and security policy. But at the same time, since it's not formally in control, the civilian leadership is the fall guy and the main target of public ire for policy failures.

This is a perfect arrangement for the military, which would much prefer that the civilians take the blame.

After the vote, if Khan loses, the Opposition would try to put together a coalition or national unity government. If that fails -- and given the many disagreements within the opposition alliance, we can't rule out a failure to put something together -- the next step would likely be early elections.

The only scenario under which I can imagine the military stepping in would be if there is unrest and violence following the vote. The political environment is always charged in Pakistan, but it's especially wound up today.

The rhetoric has become really nasty. Khan recently warned that his 'gun' is aimed at Asif Ali Zardari. So we shouldn't overlook the risk of political violence after the vote, regardless of its outcome.

The biggest potential for violence is if Khan is ousted, and there is uncertainty about the political future as the Opposition struggles to move forward. This could create space for passionate partisans to take to the streets. If such unrest lasts for a sustained period, the military may intervene using the justifications of restoring public safety and national order. It would then preside over some type of interim administration until there are elections.

Extended military rule, I believe and hope, is a thing of the past in Pakistan. The hybrid regime model allows the military to enjoy more power, while still allowing the civilian leadership to be the public front of the government and to be the fall guy for public unhappiness. This is an ideal arrangement for the generals.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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