Pakistan in the midst of a full-blown constitutional crisis

Pakistan’s Supreme Court is hearing arguments on the constitutionality of Sunday’s incidents at the National Assembly. A no-trust vote against the Imran Khan government was dismissed on account of it being part of a ‘foreign conspiracy’

April 04, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch

Pakistan is in the middle of a full-blown constitutional crisis with each day bringing a fresh series of developments that increase the uncertainty surrounding the country’s future.

Monday April 4, was a day of dramatic developments. The Supreme Court began hearing arguments on the constitutionality of the events of the previous 24 hours and is likely to arrive at a decision on Tuesday. On Sunday, the country’s National Assembly had met to vote on a no-trust motion against prime minister Imran Khan. However, in a surprise move, deputy speaker of the assembly Qasim Khan Suri dismissed the motion. Suri ruled that the motion was in violation of Article 5 of the country’s constitution which states that “Loyalty to the State is the basic duty of every citizen.” Earlier, information minister Fawad Chaudhry claimed in the Assembly that the no-trust motion was part of a foreign conspiracy to overthrow the government and hence violated Article 5. The deputy speaker accepted the argument and dismissed the motion.

Shortly after, Khan appeared on national television and accused the opposition of attempting to force a regime change on behalf of external actors (referring to the US). He declared, “I have advised the President to dissolve the Parliament. By using the constitutional power we have stopped this foreign-conspiracy. In a democratic society, change should come through elections. People, not the foreign powers, can decide.” Soon, president Arif Alvi accepted the prime minister’s recommendation and dissolved the National Assembly. The president also announced that Imran Khan would continue as caretaker prime minister until an interim prime minister was appointed ahead of elections. The president wrote to the prime minister and leader of the opposition Shehbaz Sharif, seeking suggestions for a caretaker prime minister. In response, Imran Khan nominated former Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmad. 

The question before the Supreme Court is whether it can intervene in the proceedings of parliament. The opposition has requested the court to declare the deputy speaker’s and president’s actions unconstitutional.

An escalating crisis

The current crisis marks the convergence of two developments – the no-trust motion moved by the united opposition and prime minister Imran Khan’s claim that a foreign power was behind these plans. The no-trust motion was expected to succeed as there had been defections from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and some coalition members in the government, such as the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), had switched sides. The government had been trying to postpone the no-confidence motion citing various grounds.

Opposition parties, including the Pakistan Democratic Movement (comprising the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and other parties) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have been insisting that the PTI-led government demonstrate its strength in the 342-member National Assembly. Notably, no democratically elected government has ever completed a full term since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Opposition groups cited the inability of Khan’s government to address the economic grievances of the common people as the reason for the no-confidence vote. Rising inflation rates have led to increased prices of essential food items like edible oil, pulse, wheat and sugar. Pakistan was forced to approach the IMF which demanded strict conditions and austerity policies in return for providing money.

Meanwhile, at a public rally on March 27, Khan spoke about a “threatening letter” he allegedly received from a foreign power as proof of a “foreign conspiracy”. He later mentioned the US and on April 1, reports emerged that the government had summoned a senior US diplomat in Pakistan and lodged a protest against its alleged interference.

Opposition groups demanded verification of the letter, calling it fabricated. Those favoring the government have claimed that the information provided in the document can be independently authenticated. 

Many opponents of Khan’s government including senior journalists, rights activists and political workers, have rejected the theory of foreign intervention in Pakistani affairs as a “concoction” to survive this political crisis.  

However, these developments also come at a time when Imran Khan’s policies have moved away from the US. Significant differences have also emerged between him and the Pakistani military, a longstanding ally of the US and the most powerful institution in the country. According to critics, repeated disagreements between the military and the civilian government in Pakistan, ongoing for some time now, have become more apparent with the Ukraine war. 

Khan was seen denouncing the joint letter issued by 22 European countries urging Pakistan to support a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. He declared at a public rally: “Are we slaves and do whatever you tell us… We are neutral in this conflict and will support those who want to end the war in Ukraine.” 

Meanwhile, army chief Qamar Bajwa harshly condemned the Russian attack on Ukraine.

In a Facebook post, Taimur Rahman, general secretary of the Mazdoor Kisan Party [Workers and Peasants’ Party], noted that while parties accuse each other of treachery and of being foreign funded, this is an accusation that needs to be proved in court with evidence. He concluded that in the absence of the accusation being proved, the dismissal of the no-trust motion was unconstitutional. He added that if fresh elections were held, the chances of the PTI returning to power were not bright due to its differences with the military establishment and its failures on the economic front, as well as its inability to fulfill its promises.

Rahman said that if the military establishment chose to remain relatively neutral in the upcoming elections, many politicians associated with the establishment could side with the opposition, which would adversely affect the ruling PTI.

Tuesday will prove a vital day for Pakistan as the Supreme Court’s decision could determine what happens in the coming weeks and months.