By Dr. Maleeha Lodhi
The reasons for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s downfall after three and a half years in power will be debated for some time to come. He achieved a number of ‘firsts’ by his own actions. He became the first prime minister in Pakistan’s history to be ousted from office by a Parliamentary vote of no-confidence. He was the first who tried to cling to power by preventing a no-trust vote through political maneuvers, but in vain as the Supreme Court intervened to ensure this took place.
Why did Khan’s rule come to such an inglorious end? A combination of factors may be responsible. First, his polarising politics and intolerant attitude towards the opposition. He treated opponents as enemies and refused to work with the parliamentary opposition and the opposition-run provincial government in Sindh. This ignored the fact that Pakistan has a federal polity and a parliamentary system that needs accommodation to make it work. By branding all opposition parties as corrupt and unpatriotic he pushed them to a corner and encouraged them to form a joint front with the aim of removing him from power. Disparate parties with competing interests cobbled together an alliance intent on ousting Khan.
Taking allies for granted in what was a Khan-led coalition government alienated them and made them open to opposition offers to address their demands. Khan never found time for alliance partners or for Parliament and underestimated the risk he was running as head of a minority government. He governed as if he had a parliamentary majority when he was dependent for his government’s survival on other coalition partners. This was to lead to a situation where allies abandoned him and joined the opposition. Without these allies switching support, the no-trust move would not have succeeded.
The deteriorating economy also contributed to undoing the PTI government. Although it inherited a difficult economic legacy and was able to achieve a modest economic recovery by Covid-related stimulus measures, Khan’s penchant to keep changing finance ministers caused policy discontinuity when the economy was faced with mounting challenges. But his biggest mistake may have been to delay going to the IMF given the need for funds to meet the rising financing gap in the country’s current account. This had predictable deleterious consequences, eroding foreign exchange reserves, putting pressure on the rupee and undermining investor confidence. The PTI government also ignored the business community’s oft expressed view that actions by the National Accountability Bureau were casting a shadow on the revival of confidence and investment activity.
Inflation became the single most important reason for growing public discontent with Khan’s government. Successive opinion polls showed that the rising cost of living topped public priorities and emerged as the key factor for the widespread view that under Khan the country was going in the wrong economic direction. Although skyrocketing inflation was also fuelled by international factors, Khan’s populist schemes contributed as well. Debt mounted exponentially. With the pause in the IMF program, economic uncertainty further intensified. The rupee plunged to a record low against the dollar forcing an unprecedented rise in interest rates.
Khan’s personalised rule meant that he relied more on his instincts to frame policy than on an institutionalised process of receiving and acting on advice. His inexperience didn’t help. Nor did an unwieldy patchwork cabinet that lacked cohesiveness with internal rifts that marred its performance. His choice of an ineffective chief minister, Usman Buzdar in Punjab, became a major source both of public disillusionment and disaffection in his own party. The number of dissidents grew among PTI MNAs and MPAs from Punjab mainly because of their unhappiness with the Buzdar administration’s performance. But Khan paid little attention to the brewing party revolt until the no-confidence move. By then it was too late.
The former Prime Minister’s relations with the military establishment, which had backed him unreservedly, also became strained especially after the disagreement last year over the appointment of the new head of the country’s premier intelligence agency, ISI. Differences also emerged over key areas of foreign policy. All this persuaded the establishment to adopt a position of neutrality. This may have given the opposition the confidence to press ahead with their no-trust move based on the assumption that the establishment would not come to Khan’s rescue and stay out of the political fray.
Although Khan’s rule came to an unceremonious end, his political career is far from over. Nationwide rallies by his supporters to protest his ouster were an important reminder of this. He now plans to mobilise his followers by holding public rallies to mount pressure on the new government to force it into early elections. Whether or not this strategy succeeds, Khan will remain a force in Pakistan’s politics.
(Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha)