Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s continuance in office appears uncertain. An alliance of opposition parties – Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N); Asif Ali Zaradri’s Pakistan people’s Party (PPP); and Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamat Ulema-Islam (F) – have jointly submitted a no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister to the Speaker of the National Assembly. Many in Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) too have turned against him, and his coalition partners appear in two minds about backing him.

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Falling out with Army

Khan’s situation is all the more dire because he and the Pakistan Army have fallen out. For about two years after his 2018 election, Khan’s boast was that his government, unlike previous civilian governments, was on the “same page” as the Army and was therefore stable and could focus on governance. The Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had worked overtime for Khan’s election – or “selection” as it came to be called – by engineering defections from PPP and PLM (N) so that the PTI had “electable” candidates who could win elections on their own steam, irrespective of party affiliation.

The PTI won 155 seats in the 342-seat National Assembly, and made up 176 with coalition partners MQM, the Musharraf-era PML (Q), a new Balochistan group called Balochistan Awam Party, and other small parties. Two other parties with three seats between them gave outside support.

The arrangement was held together by the Army. Unlike other civilian governments headed by PPP and PML (N) in the post-Musharraf era, the PTI had no particular desire to assert its independence from the military. From surrendering the handling of the Covid-19 crisis to the US-Taliban talks, the Prime Minister appeared comfortable with the role the Army was playing in national governance and foreign policy.

Within two years, the “hybrid” arrangement started fraying as the government’s popularity waned. With little expertise in administration, and preoccupied with keeping the PTI’s promise of weeding out corruption, Imran Khan floundered on the economic front. Last month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released $ 1 billion from a bailout the country had secured in 2019. Out of a total package of $ 6 billion, Pakistan has now received half of that amount. But food and energy prices have remained high.

Unlike other ‘hybrid’ arrangements, such as in Myanmar, the Pakistan Army craves popularity. Within the Army, differences cropped up over backing Khan.

Extension and after

The first signs of civil-military tensions came with Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s 2019 extension, which caused embarrassment for the government and the Army when the Supreme Court questioned the basis for such extensions and ordered that it be approved by Parliament.

In late 2020, the three major opposition parties – PML (N), PPP and JuI (F) – came together and held big rallies targeting Imran Khan’s governance failures, and his and the Army’s “sellout” to India on Kashmir. PML (N) leaders Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz singled out Bajwa for condemnation. But neither the government nor the Army blinked and Imran looked set to complete his term.

What finally got Imran was the tail trying to wag the dog. Last year, as Bajwa ordered a series of transfers of his top generals, Imran Khan tried to hang on to Lt. General Faiz Hameed, then the ISI chief, who had been transferred to head the XI Corps in Peshawar.

At one time, he was tipped to be the next Army chief, and a Corps command post a year ahead of Gen Bajwa’s retirement in 2022 would have been seen as the fulfilling of an eligibility requirement for the top job.

But Hameed had become an institutional liability for the Army. Although he was Gen Bajwa’s blue-eyed boy only months earlier, his exposure to several controversies, including his triumphant public appearance in Kabul after the Taliban takeover, went against him.

Imran Khan’s three-week-long refusal to sign off on the appointment of Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum as the new ISI chief raised apprehensions in the Army that the PM and Hameed were likely viewing each other as guarantors of their respective ambitions – Hameed to become Army chief with the Prime Minister’s help, and the latter to win another term in 2023 with Hameed’s help .

As an institution, the Pakistan Army is suspicious of generals who break ranks to build individual relations with politicians. Although the Prime Minister finally signed the notification for Anjum’s appointment, relations between the Army and the government had suffered a rupture.

Opposition parties saw in this the opportunity for yet another attempt to unseat Imran Khan. Sure that this time the Army would not back him, they submitted a no-confidence motion to the Speaker on March 14, with a request to him to convene Parliament.

As an opposition politician, Imran Khan had once appealed to the “neutral umpire” – the Army – to unseat the Nawaz Sharif government. This time, when the Army declared itself neutral, he lashed out at it, saying “only beasts are neutral”.

Dissidents in party

Imran Khan is now said to be 12-24 MNAs (Members of National Assembly) short of a majority. Last week, some Imran Khan loyalists tried to break into an official guest house of the Sindh Province in Islamabad, where the dissidents are sequestered.

The Prime Minister said his party would also put up a show of strength outside the National Assembly. This has prompted the opposition parties to announce their own show at the same venue. The proposed rival shows slated for March 27, a day before the trust vote is to be taken up, have raised concerns of large scale violence and bloodshed.

On March 19, the Supreme Court Bar Association petitioned the Supreme Court to intervene to prevent “anarchy” and direct all political parties to act according to the Constitution on the no-confidence vote.

On Monday, through a presidential reference, the government asked the court to interpret Article 63-A of Pakistan’s Constitution, under which defecting MNAs can be disqualified, and clarify if this provision could be applied pre-emptively to MNAs who were engaged in dissident activities , as a “prophylactic” to “cleanse the democratic system”. The court has formed a five-member bench to hear the matter. The next hearing is on March 24.

As per the Constitution, Speaker Asad Qaiser should have convened Parliament by March 22. He was seen as dragging his feet on calling the session. Opposition parties asked the court to take note of this transgression. But citing the unavailability of the Assembly premises on March 22-23, when they have been requisitioned for the ongoing Organization of Islamic Cooperation meet, the Speaker has now convened the session on March 25. The vote must take place between three and seven days of the Assembly convening.

Imran Khan is pinning his hopes on the Supreme Court to bail him out. There is also speculation that he might sack the Army chief. But without an extraordinary intervention by himself or some other stakeholder in this crisis, the floor test is likely to come first.

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