With the upcoming No-Confidence vote, Pakistan finds itself further embroiled in political and economic uncertainties.
In a country overburdened with the historical accumulation of debt, along with a pandemic struck economy, a potential rupture in the government’s capacity to carry out the day-to-day functions of the state doesn’t portend well for the future. On 8 March, around 100 Members of the National Assembly (MNA) from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) along with other regional parties submitted a No-Confidence Motion to the National Secretariat against the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Embroiled in a perennial civil-military conflict, for a democratic government to complete its stint in power is a big feat in Pakistan. Even though there were hopes of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government completing its term in office, the submission of the motion, compounded with the existing heightened discontent amongst the public has complicated an already knotted situation.
The opposition against the government of Imran Khan has been building momentum since he came to power in 2018. Initially targeting him for the unethical ways in which he emerged victorious, the grievances against his governance have only increased in tempo over the years. The country recorded a negative rate of growth in 2019 for the first time in decades, with a steep fall in real income and an overall slump in the economy. Since then, Pakistan has witnessed multiple protests and blockades against the government’s economic policies, and its high-handedness towards its critics and opposition lawmakers. As per the most recent Gallup performance survey, concerns about high unemployment and inflation levels are topmost on the minds of the people. Between 1990 and 2016, the external government debt payments averaged 16 percent of the country’s revenue with the majority amount under the interest on these loans. This over-reliance on external aid has created a negative perception of international institutions and their shrewd attempts at infringing Pakistan’s sovereignty by making aid contingent on reforms. This came to the fore after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a tranche of US$1 billion dollars under the Extended Fund Facility last month. For detractors, Khan’s ‘oppositional style’ politics and his inability to create the capacity in the country for undertaking effective domestic and foreign policy decisions is to be blamed for the disarray in which the nation finds itself.
Even though there were hopes of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government completing its term in office, the submission of the motion, compounded with the existing heightened discontent amongst the public has complicated an already knotted situation.
In a speech on 28 February, after his visit to Russia, Khan announced a number of populist measures to ameliorate the impact of the crisis in Ukraine and the soaring international oil prices. Slashing the price of petroleum by PKR 10 and announcing tax exemptions on certain sectors, he announced a freeze over the prices till the next Budget Session in June. The cash handouts and the ad-hoc economic decisions, even though intended to sow a sense of confidence in the economy and pacify the rising crescendo of dissenting voices, were deemed as counter intuitive by experts and perceived by the Opposition as a last-ditch effort to save the government.
Talks about the PTI government losing support and being removed from office have been travelling around the political grapevine since last October. For the No-Confidence Motion to be successful, the opposition needs the support of 172 members out of the 342-member assembly. During the press conference on the day the motion was submitted, Bilawal Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari of the PPP, and Shehbaaz Sharif of the PML-N exuded confidence in the support they were able to secure from the 164 opposition members in the National Assembly and from the discontented members of the PTI, which has 155 members and 23 coalition partners. With both sides wanting to salvage their positions, the days following 8 March witnessed a flurry of verbal attacks and counterattacks, meetings and discussions, and instances of blackmailing and bribing of the MNAs to win their allegiance. The situation has become more complex after the opposition decided to submit a No-Confidence Motion against the Speaker of the National Assembly, Asad Qaiser and the Deputy Speaker Qasim Khan Suri last Sunday for disrespecting their ‘neutral’ position and failing to resign from their party posts as per rules, effectively barring them from chairing the proceedings of the assembly.
Representation of political parties in the assembly:
Like all leaders lacking domestic legitimacy, Khan blamed the submission of the motion on a foreign conspiracy, arguing that only those people who didn’t want an independent foreign policy would support it. Confident of staying in power till 2028, his party has also planned a ‘power show’ at D-Chowk in Islamabad on 27 March, a day before the motion is put to vote. However, amidst this high rhetoric, the cracks in the coalition have come to the surface. News about the coalition partners blackmailing the PTI for support in the assembly for voting in favour and the discontent in the Punjab provincial government have made the situation more sticky. The PTI has been extensively lobbying with its members to win their support in the past few weeks, but the decision of Aleem Khan, a prominent leader who was once a close aide of the Prime Minister, to join hands with the disgruntled Jahangir Tareen group, along with almost 30 lawmakers doesn’t bode well for the ruling coalition. Dismissing the antics of the Opposition, Imran Khan has explicitly boasted about the support that he enjoys from the military and ridiculed the Opposition’s attempts at buying his ministers. To create a façade of a defiant leader standing strong in the face of intense pressure, he has been delivering strong speeches and individually targeting the Opposition leaders by resorting to name-calling and threatening with police action.
South Asia is no stranger to parties forming alliances to topple a government which fail to sustain themselves in the long run owing to their disparate nature. Irrespective of whoever wins the battle, the next few months will be challenging for the cash-strapped country.
The decision of the Opposition to table the motion signals a degree of confidence in its approach towards the PTI government. In the situation of there being an actual change in government, the opposition’s ability to maintain its unity and hold the motley crew of parties together will be put to test. With leaders with diverse ideological underpinnings, reaching at a consensus can be an extremely difficult issue. And so even if the motion succeeds, it won’t automatically herald the beginning of a new era in Pakistani polity. Conduction of a free and fair election is the only potential way of ensuring stability. However, fears about a massive outflow of investors from the country coupled with a downward fall in the foreign exchange reserves are also present. A new government’s ascent to the helm can also affect pre-existing agreements and projects, and adversely impact the aid programme with IMF, which even though marred with domestic contestation is a necessity for Pakistan. Even if the Imran Khan government can effectively sail through this turbulence, its capacity to govern will be affected by the calls for protest by the opposition. These warnings, even though based on superficial pomposity, do have the potential of further pushing the country on a path of total uncertainty.
The No-Confidence Motion was not a surprise, either for the political leadership or for the analysts, but the PTI government is finding it difficult to get a grip on the situation. With rifts amongst the coalition and the heightened emotions in the country, the voting will have ripple effects on the nation and its economy. The support of the dissident MNAs to the Opposition will be crucial in deciding the verdict. While submitting a No-Confidence Motion is a constitutional right of the Opposition, in an already vulnerable country the risks involved are manifold, with a potential for “artificially created political instability”. South Asia is no stranger to parties forming alliances to topple a government which fail to sustain themselves in the long run owing to their disparate nature. Irrespective of whoever wins the battle, the next few months will be challenging for the cash-strapped country.
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