Interregnum in Pakistan


Translation by Lorenzo Maria Pacini

On 9 April 2022, a majority in Pakistan's National Assembly voted to dismiss Prime Minister Imran Khan. Although the upper house of parliament had previously been dissolved by President Arif Alvi, the Supreme Court deemed the action unconstitutional, allowing parliamentarians to reconvene for a vote of no confidence. Following the prime minister's resignation, the country's attorney general, Khalid Javed Khan, resigned.

The opposition cheered, while Imran Khan's supporters took to the streets of Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and other major cities. Imran Khan vowed to launch a fight against the coup orchestrated by foreign powers. Armed forces and police have been put on high alert, security measures have been tightened and airport controllers have been directed not to let officials and politicians leave the country without proper clearance.

On April 10, during a meeting of the National Assembly, the opposition nominated Shahbaz Sharif as the new head of government. Another candidate to head the government from the Justice Movement party was nominated by the now former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureishi. Voting was held in the National Assembly on April 11. However, the Justice Movement party boycotted the choice of the prime minister. Nevertheless, it won the necessary quorum. This procedure cancels the previously announced snap election and it will now take place as scheduled in 2023.

For a complete picture of the political playing field, further clarification is needed.

Muslim League-N leader Nawaz Sharif as well as his daughter Maryam were convicted of corruption under Imran Khan, who was particularly zealous in combating bribery, cronyism and other political corruption (although Nawaz Sharif had resigned earlier for this reason, which led to snap elections in which Khan's Justice Movement party won). While already convicted and serving his sentence (seven years and a hefty fine) Nawaz Sharif was allowed to go to London for medical treatment, but never returned to the country to continue serving his sentence. He himself, like his relatives, represents a major oligarchic clan in Punjab, which has led some media to say that Nawaz's brother Shahbaz Sharif will become the new Prime Minister. Like his brother, Shahbaz Sharif has a criminal past and has been under investigation for corruption with construction contracts and money laundering since 2018.

The capital of this clan is kept in Britain. Interestingly, one of Imran Khan's initiatives was an attempt to return the funds that were exported to his home country. An amnesty was even declared, though few of the rich demonstrated a spirit of patriotism. And when EU ambassadors tried to press Imran Khan to condemn Russia's actions, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif's emotional rejection was called an insult, worsening relations with Europe, and therefore, he should allegedly resign.

The other major opposition force, the Pakistan People's Party, which has its nuclear constituency in Sindh, also initially opposed Iran Khan's reforms and criticised him in every possible way. Former president and party co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari also represents the oligarchy, was accused of corruption in 1990 and spent two years in jail. He studied in Britain and has his capitals there as well. Apart from corruption, he has been accused of drug trafficking and has mental problems.

The late Benazir Bhutto, his wife and the first female head of state, was actively engaged with the US even when she was in opposition to General Musharraf's rule. It was through her that the ideas of undermining the Pakistani military establishment were transmitted and the White House picked up on this by starting to put pressure on Islamabad to hold democratic elections.

There are rumours that Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari (son of the late Benazir Bhutto and Zardari) may take over as foreign minister in the new government. Given the family-clan succession of the party, this is quite possible despite his young age (33). In the meantime, he has stated that such a decision would be made by his party.

As for assessments on the reasons for the intervention, it is generally said that Imran Khan's independent stance, as well as his ties with China and Russia, are the reason for the intervention.  Indeed, Imran Khan has shown himself to be a remarkable figure who, immediately after coming to power, declared that Pakistan would not be a bargaining chip in the games of other countries and would not put the shoulder of the West in their regional wars. He refused to condemn Russia's actions and was in Moscow on an official visit when the special operation in Ukraine began. But it cannot be said that he took a pro-Russian stance. Of course, under him the issue of Pakistan's debt, which had been "dangling" since Soviet times and prevented our countries from intensifying trade and economic cooperation, was resolved. The end of the matter allowed the Russian side to enter the Pakistan Stream gas pipeline project, albeit with certain restrictions because of sanctions. Pakistan, on the other hand, has increased its grain purchases from Russia and plans to increase volumes in 2022.

With regard to China, cooperation between the two countries began to strengthen in the early 1970s. It was Pakistan that acted as an intermediary between China and the US, which led to a visit of President Richard Nixon to Beijing in 1972 and the beginning of active cooperation between the former enemies (Washington set a goal of tearing China away from the influence of the USSR and in fact, it was accomplished). China then became not only Pakistan's political partner but also its economic donor, financing a key project of its Belt and Road Initiative, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which includes Beijing's management of the deep-sea port of Gwadar. The dependence on China is too great. Therefore, it is unlikely that the future government will go to the trouble of worsening relations with its key donor. As governor of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif made deals with China directly, which enabled the launch of major infrastructure projects, avoiding political clamour. Therefore, for Beijing, his candidacy would be quite acceptable. The Chinese embassy in Pakistan has officially stated that regardless of who is in power, relations between the two countries will remain friendly.

The settlement in Afghanistan remains an important issue. Imran Khan has made significant strides in integrating the Pashtuns of the northwestern border areas, which have been renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa under him. For the same reason, the Taliban (banned in Russia), whose backbone is made up of Pashtuns, were causing some anxiety in Islamabad, which prompted a series of negotiations and necessary agreements. But it is also worth bearing in mind that the US has almost openly accused the government of Imran Khan of helping the Taliban, which led to the fall of Kabul and the shameful flight of the US military from Afghanistan. According to the American side, Qatar played a good mediating role for them, so they will not need Pakistan's services. Against the background of frozen assets in Afghanistan and the refusal of the U.S. to continue funding the aid programme to Pakistan, it can be assumed that Washington will now act with a stick rather than a carrot towards Islamabad.
In general, the current political crisis is hitting Pakistan first and foremost.

Governors of Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are likely to step down. Another division of portfolios will lead to a review of ongoing projects and initiatives (for example, Imran Khan has actively supported environmental initiatives and social programmes). The choice of Shahbaz Sharif as prime minister indicates a victory for an oligarchy with foreign ties. Surely his brother Nawaz will be able to return to the country and the charges against him will be dropped, which will raise questions about whose side the law is on in this country.

A columnist for a major Pakistani newspaper, in his article titled "Masochism as Politics", trying to capture the specifics of the current processes, writes that "today we fantasise about those who can deliver the biggest 'surprise' when they further mislead our opponents, and how the rule of law will be sacrificed to our own ego next time".
There is one "but" though. The main political force in Pakistan, despite the facade of democracy, is the military. It is from them that Imran Khan received support in the 2018 elections. It is quite possible that the military's tacit endorsement of Shahbaz Sharif's candidature is because they have a dossier on him, so he will not make any drastic gestures that could hurt their interests.

After all, the word "crisis" of Greek origin also reflects the current situation well - it is a fracture or a phase of transition. Pakistan can either opt for sovereignty and a course towards multipolarity, as was done under Imran Khan, or return to the level of a satellite of the Western powers.