Masterstroke or civilian coup? Imran Khan’s move divides Pakistan

All eyes on the SC after Khan’s decision to dissolve national assembly

PAKISTAN-POLITICS/ Eye of the storm: Police officers walk past the supreme court of Pakistan in Islamabad on April 6 | AFP

General (retd) Pervez Musharraf once said that he thinks the constitution is “just a piece of paper to be thrown in the dustbin”. The scenes that unfolded in the national assembly on April 3 show that prime minister Imran Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), think no differently than the former military dictator.

The ball is now in the judiciary’s court. “The constitution is not on trial. The judges are,” says senior journalist Najam Sethi.

A vote of no-confidence against Khan was moved by the opposition on March 8 over his government’s inability to rein in inflation. The government delayed summoning a session of the national assembly, using the Organisation of Islamic Corporation foreign ministers’ meeting as an excuse. After some delay and adjourning sessions, the vote was finally set to take place on April 3. It could not be delayed any further.

And so, the numbers were eventually managed by the opposition. It had been a hectic political time since February. There was a flurry of meetings—first between the leaders of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and then between the opposition parties and the PTI allies, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid e Azam (PML-Q) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP).

At first, the government dismissed these meetings and challenged the opposition to file a no-trust motion. When the opposition finally filed it in March, Khan celebrated the move, saying that the opposition had fallen into his trap. But then there was panic in the government ranks. Despite meetings with its allies and threats to people who could be lured to switch sides, the government could not manage to keep all of its allies on its side. MQM and BAP jumped ship to join the opposition. The PML-Q almost left, but stayed put when it got a better last-minute deal from the government. The bigger surprise though was how more than two dozen members of the PTI had come out in the open against Khan ahead of the no-confidence motion.

When it became apparent that the government would not survive the trust vote, Khan started building a narrative centred around a foreign conspiracy to oust him. He talked about a letter from Pakistan’s ambassador to the US Asad Majeed Khan, who had, in a meeting with US assistant secretary of state for Central and South Asia Donald Lu, been allegedly warned of implications if Khan survived the no-confidence vote.

On April 3—the day of the vote—Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri disallowed the vote of no-confidence by invoking Article 5 that states that loyalty to the state is the basic duty of every citizen. This came after a short statement by information and broadcasting minister Fawad Chaudhry reiterating Khan’s foreign conspiracy claim. Ironically, Article 5 also talks about obedience to the constitution and law being an obligation of every citizen, which was flouted in broad daylight on the floor of the house by the ruling PTI. Once the vote of no-confidence was disallowed, Khan announced that he had advised President Arif Alvi to dissolve the national assembly. And it was done. Within a span of a few minutes, the constitution of Pakistan was thrown into the dustbin.

PTI leaders celebrated this move as some sort of a ‘masterstroke’. However, a statement by the Human Rights Watch says, “Imran Khan’s dissolution of parliament to prevent it from voting so that he could remain in office threatens core democratic principles. It infringes on the rights of Pakistani citizens to choose their government, which is protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The government’s threatened use of violence, allegations of treason, and abrogation of the constitution are hallmarks of dictatorship, which Pakistanis have previously endured and should not have to endure again.”

The gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that the supreme court took suo moto cognisance of the crisis on the same day—despite it being Sunday, a holiday.

PPP senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar says that we have seen populist leaders follow a similar pattern the world over. “Imran Khan is no exception,” he says. “Having mishandled the economy and not being able to fulfil a single promise in his four-year stint as prime minister, he has hurled the country towards another crisis upon his departure.” The act of dissolution of the national assembly on the basis of opposition being part of a foreign conspiracy to topple him, he says, “has left many wondering if he has still got a hang on his mental faculties. Even comedians have turned out to be better leaders in times of crisis”.

PML-N leader Ahsan Iqbal says that Khan has launched a civilian coup against the constitution. “His deputy speaker has unconstitutionally rejected the no-confidence motion against Imran Khan like Hitler got his enabling act passed without a majority on March 23, 1933,” he says.

It is a view that finds resonance among the opposition. PML-N senator Dr Musadik Malik says that Khan has shaken the constitutional foundations of Pakistan. “Historically, such acts have only been carried out by fascist regimes and dictators,” he says. “In parliamentary democracy, the inalienable right to elect or remove the leader of the house cannot be taken away from parliamentarians.” He also decries the speaker’s role in the trust vote crisis. “Equally insidious is the speaker’s ruling declaring 197 members of the parliament disloyal to Pakistan, and denying them the right to vote,” he adds. “It is reminiscent of dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s referendum in which opposing the general would have meant opposing religion. Khan’s near-fascist regime is setting precedents on which democracy cannot stand.”

Chaudhry, however, says that the opposition is hiding behind technical jargon. “The opposition is running away from people’s vote and trying to evade elections,” he says. “Imran Khan is ruling the hearts and minds of people, whereas the opposition is largely conceived corrupt and incompetent. Hence, PTI is likely to return to power with a huge majority.”

However, this is not as simple. Senior journalist Zebunnisa Burki says it would not be an exaggeration to say that April 3 will go down as “one of the darkest days in Pakistan’s history”. “We have seen men in uniform disregard the constitution over the years but, no matter how regressive a civilian dispensation was, it was always a given that at least they would try to preserve even a facade of protecting the constitution. But Imran Khan becomes the first one to opt for a civilian coup just to placate his bruised ego,” she says. “In this, Khan’s action unfortunately is in keeping with the way he has conducted government during the past three years: a chokehold on the press; a witch-hunt against political opponents; a regressive approach towards education; and a near-disdain for democracy.”

But there is a method to this madness. Senior journalist and news anchor Kashif Abbasi says that the reason why Khan took this route is so that his electoral legislations, which include the use of electronic voting machines and voting rights for overseas Pakistanis, could not be reversed. He also did not want the National Accountability Bureau law to be repealed. “He can see his ground swell and he has a narrative—foreign interference—that he thinks is very popular among the masses,” says Abbasi. “He doesn’t want to give his opponents the opportunity to make key appointments before elections.”

The ball though is now in the judiciary’s court. “The constitution is not on trial. The judges are,” says senior journalist Najam Sethi. He believes that there is a consensus in civil society and the bar that the subversion of the constitution on April 3 by a civilian—Khan—is no less damning than when military generals imposed martial law in 1958, 1977 and 1999. “Judges legitimised those subversions on the basis of the ‘law of necessity’ (who can argue with a gun?). But today that argument is not relevant,” he says. “Therefore, any supreme court judgement that does not outlaw the April 3 decisions in toto will tar the judges for life without resolving the crisis of democracy.”

Abbasi says he does not know about Khan’s legacy or how he wants to be remembered. “He is still popular,” he says. “Only elections will tell us whether he is popular enough to form a government or have enough seats to be a loud opposition voice.”

Sarfraz is a Lahore-based journalist.