This month, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted in a parliamentary no-confidence vote, ending months of political turmoil. For weeks, Khan had faced public discontent with his mismanagement of the economy and lost the support of Pakistan's powerful military establishment. The political opposition seized the opportunity. In the end, Khan's removal was made possible by Supreme Court action: Days before, the court reversed a ruling by the National Assembly's deputy speaker to dismiss the no-confidence vote.
Khan is the first Pakistani prime minister to be removed by a no-confidence vote, but none has ever completed their full five-year term. Only three of the 23 prime ministers since Pakistan's independence have lasted for four years, and most were deposed through unconstitutional means. However, Khan's ouster has changed that dynamic: He was removed by a constitutional procedure like in other established democracies.
The Supreme Court verdict is a step forward for Pakistan's democracy, but it remains fragile. The decision arguably sets a precedent that no future politician can subvert the constitution, burying the so-called doctrine of necessity, under which the judiciary once enabled illegal administrative measures under the pretext of restoring order. But the departure of Khan, who came to power in 2018 with the backing of the military, also signals the end of the powerful military establishment's experiment with hybrid democracy in Pakistan.
Since the last military regime ended in 2008, Pakistan has seen two smooth transitions of power through democratic elections: in 2013 and in 2018. But Pakistan is not yet a functional democracy; instead, it has operated as a hybrid regime, with the military pulling the strings by installing a pliable civilian apparatus. During Khan's four years in power, the military expanded its spheres of influence from security and foreign policy to include the economy, media, and disaster management.
Although the military has signaled its intent to limit its role and refrain from political interference, history suggests otherwise. In the past, political strife in Pakistan has catalyzed direct military interventions. The military has often tactically withdrawn from the political sphere when it suited its own interests—but it has not hesitated to intervene under other circumstances. Khan's ouster goes down as a failure for the military's involvement in domestic politics.
The military remains a kingmaker in Pakistan. Khan's departure was unthinkable without the military quietly rescinding its support, which transpired amid intractable differences over the appointment of Pakistan's intelligence chief as well as the country's foreign policy. It is no secret that after falling out with the prime minister, the military and its intelligence agency stopped coercing allied political parties to support Khan's regime. In this respect, Khan's ouster represents the continuity of a trend: Handpicked prime ministers who pursue policies independent of the military's institutional thinking have been removed from power.
In 2018, Khan attracted so-called electables—influential politicians from feudal families—to join his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and win the general election. A political demagogue, Khan promised to build a new Pakistan through reform, better governance, and eliminating corruption. This last pledge resonated with the urban middle class, particularly among bureaucratic and military families. However, Pakistan's ranking on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index has plummeted on Khan's watch, and the country has seen sky-high inflation, an increase in poverty, and rising unemployment.
Khan counts some landmark achievements during his almost four-year rule. He introduced the Naya Pakistan Qaumi Sehat Card scheme, which provides Pakistani families with up to 1 million rupees (around $5,400) in annual health care coverage. He successfully navigated the 2019 border crisis with India, which brought the rivals to the brink of war. During Khan's tenure, Pakistan also proposed a resolution against Islamophobia at the United Nations General Assembly, which was adopted in March.
But the prime minister's greatest strength—the military's seemingly unconditional support—became his Achilles' heel. Khan, a former cricket star, hails from an urban middle class background, like many members of Pakistan's military and bureaucracy. The military establishment assumed that civil-military harmony would put Pakistan back on a clear path to development, and Khan didn't realize that the military's backing wouldn't be enough to hold onto power. Eventually, the opposition blamed the Khan-military alliance for plunging the country into socioeconomic chaos.
During his tenure, Khan outsourced political management of both his allies and adversaries to the military establishment, undermining the structure of his party. This distant approach gave some lawmakers the impression that he was arrogant and insensitive; he often bypassed parliament, choosing to legislate through ordinances. Furthermore, Khan's anti-corruption campaign remained a pipe dream. The PTI's accountability tsar, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, resigned in January after failing to deliver desired results, particularly for not proving corruption and money laundering charges against opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif—sworn in on April 11 as the country's new prime minister.
As Pakistan's economy tanked and its internal security worsened, Khan became a liability for the military. His reluctance to appoint Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum as the new intelligence director last October and transfer out then-sitting director and Khan loyalist Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed was the final straw. Khan had hoped to keep Hameed on as spy chief and promote him to army chief at the end of Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa's tenure; this position crossed a red line for the military. Khan later appointed Anjum as intelligence director, but the damage was done. The military soon stepped back from supporting Khan, paving the way for the opposition's no-confidence motion.
Khan owed his victory to the electables who joined the PTI in 2018, but he also appointed an array of technical advisors and spokespeople to his cabinet, with perks equaling those of the federal ministers. But influential politicians must answer to their constituencies; this dichotomy eventually triggered fissures within the PTI. As the gulf widened, Khan became distant from worsening economic realities on the ground. Many of the politicians quickly jumped the PTI's ship ahead of the no-confidence vote.
Although changing the political guard could bring down the political temperature in Pakistan, it will not solve the country's complex structural problems. The new government has its work cut out for it. Pakistan needs a new social contract that addresses injustices and inequalities. After another failed attempt at political engineering, the military establishment must step back and allow the democratic process to evolve. In this regard, army spokesperson Maj. Gen. Babar Iftikhar's statement on April 14 that "there will be no martial law in Pakistan" is reassuring, shutting the door to future coups.
The political chaos ahead of the no-confidence vote could have upended Pakistan's democracy, but it is not out of the woods yet. It is yet to break the cycle of elected prime ministers failing to complete their terms. Even though legal checks and balances led to the removal of an elected leader, the real test of people power in the country will be if the army truly stays out of politics. And that may be too much to ask.
Abdul Basit is a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Twitter: @basitresearcher
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.