Pakistan’s current government, an unwieldy multi-party coalition led by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party, faced a new setback in July after losses in mid-month special elections for 20 constituencies in the country’s heartland province of Punjab. Although the PML-N coalition attempted to retain control of the provincial government through manuevers in the provincial assembly, a Supreme Court ruling on July 26 overturned earlier precedent and ordered the election of Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, an ally of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, to the position of chief minister.

Supporters of Prime Minister Imran Khan rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Monday night, April 4, 2022.  (Saiyna Bashir/The New York Times)
Supporters of Prime Minister Imran Khan rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Monday night, April 4, 2022. (Saiyna Bashir/The New York Times)

The court’s ruling and the earlier electoral losses have set back the PML-N government’s attempts to consolidate control after Khan’s ouster in April, and raise new questions about its sustainability. On August 2, however, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) ruled that Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had violated campaign finance rules, a finding that could lead to his disqualification from electoral politics. Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida and USIP’s Colin Cookman, Adnan Rafiq, Tamanna Salikuddin and Jumaina Siddiqui assess the fallout.

The ECP found that the PTI had received funding from foreign sources that are prohibited under the Pakistani laws. How would this judgement affect politics in the country?

Rafiq: After a long running trial, a three member ECP bench declared PTI guilty of “knowingly and willfully” receiving donations from prohibited sources. The most damaging part of the ruling stated that for the five years scrutinized by the commission, party chairman Imran Khan had provided a “grossly inaccurate” declaration certifying the legality of funding. The verdict has raised the specter of Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution, which disqualify a person from being a member of the national or provincial legislature for not being “sadiq” and “ameen” — truthful and trustworthy. These same articles were used to disqualify former Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif from holding public office in 2017, for not declaring salary from his employment by a UAE firm owned by his son. The ruling coalition is now pursuing Khan’s disqualification under the same provision.

While the ECP’s verdict is unlikely to dampen Khan’s popularity among the masses, it does hang the proverbial sword of disqualification over his head on technical grounds. This gives the unelected institutions such as the ECP, the judiciary and the military “establishment” further leverage over him. The timing of the verdict — which came seven years after the inquiry was first initiated but within a few months of Khan’s ouster from power — has also raised question marks. Many analysts believe that this is another indicator that the powers-that-be are unhappy over the prospect of his returning to power. Whether Khan’s populist rhetoric and charisma can effectively mobilize his support base to win elections and force the establishment institutions’ acceptance of his return back as the prime minister remains to be seen.  

How vulnerable is the PML-N led coalition government in Islamabad? What are some potential pathways by which Imran Khan might try to induce a general election?

Cookman: The coalition government’s recent electoral losses and the Supreme Court ruling that blocked their attempt to retain control of the Punjab chief minister’s position has severely undercut the PML-N’s efforts to reassert control of the country’s biggest province and has taken away some of its major levers of control over administrative appointments, the allocation of resources and the legal apparatus. While it leads the federal government, the PML-N does not control any of the country’s four provinces, and relies heavily on coalition partners for its narrow three seat effective margin of majority in the National Assembly. Thus far, the coalition leadership is publicly committed to the completion of its term in office next summer. However, it could quickly collapse if any one of the parties in the coalition opts to withdraw its support.

For his part, Imran Khan has mobilized supporters around calls for new nationwide elections, putting pressure on the electoral administration and the government. In response, in addition to seeking Khan’s disqualification, the government has also begun to selectively accept the resignations of PTI lawmakers from the National Assembly, which the PTI had made following Khan’s ouster in April, but which the government had until now slow-walked. Given Pakistan’s first-past-the-post political system, the multi-party governing coalition will have to coordinate closely among its members to seize those seats from the PTI if fresh elections are held; failure to mobilize PML-N voters in support of former PTI defectors appears to have been one contributing factor in the coalition’s losses in the earlier elections in Punjab. Upcoming local government elections in Sindh, scheduled for mid-August, could also potentially amplify tensions between the Pakistan People’s Party and the Muttahida Quami Movement, local level rivals in Karachi, and weaken cohesion in the national government.

Pakistan’s economy is under serious pressure, with high levels of inflation, deteriorating foreign exchange reserves and a sharp decline in the value of the rupee. Is the current political turmoil likely to impact the willingness of the IMF and other international lenders or donors to backstop the Pakistani economy? How likely is it that political leaders will be able to maintain their commitments to austerity measures?

Siddiqui: The economy has become the main issue driving voter sentiments in Pakistan. This was most evident in the losses that PML-N suffered in the recent Punjab by-elections. The government is still awaiting the release of the next tranche of funds from the IMF to bolster the country’s foreign exchange reserves and allow Pakistan to make payments on its external debts. Unfortunately, the average citizen is suffering under the weight of the IMF-mandated removal of energy subsidies and other measures, as well as out of control inflation and the rapid decline of the rupee.

Pakistan’s partners such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China have not been as quick to shore up the country’s foreign reserves as in years past. The PML-N government has stated that the country will have arranged for almost $5 billion by the end of the fiscal year, on top of the IMF loan, but as of this writing nothing is locked in.

Maintaining austerity measures to ensure compliance with IMF and other lender criteria is likely to prove a further burden on the government’s political fortunes. Khan continues to hammer the current government for the economic crisis, even though the foundation for this economic downturn was laid during the PTI government because of intense spending on social welfare programs, especially during the pandemic. Pakistan is not alone in the challenges it is facing — many countries around the world are in similar economic crisis due to the pandemic, combined with global wheat shortages and increased fuel prices. While the country is not in as dire a condition as nearby Sri Lanka, the “symptoms” are there and will need to be treated to ensure the country’s economic and political stability. 

Where does the Pakistan Army stand in the current political impasse? And what does that imply for who will succeed Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa when his tenure expires in November?

Almeida: The shockwaves from Khan’s exit and the current coalition government’s dismal start to an uncertain tenure have convulsed the army and created the greatest political challenge to the army leadership in a generation. General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the army chief, is a wildly unpopular public figure, excoriated by Khan and his supporters and increasingly viewed by the current governing coalition as a lame duck who has lost political control over his institution. In eras past, when an army chief has been deemed to have become more of a liability than an asset to the institution’s interests, a handover to a successor is engineered and the army quickly regroups as an institution. But with November rapidly approaching and a sense that the origins of the current crisis lie in a political tussle over who appoints the next army chief, a path forward is far from clear.

For example, a general election before the next chief is appointed would allow a new prime minister, whether Khan or someone else, to appoint a new chief from a position of sufficient political and electoral authority. However, that would mean a general election held with Bajwa still in office — would Khan accept such a vote to begin with? In any case, after the devastating defeat in the Punjab by-elections, the PML-N-led government appears determined to hold on until November and select a new army chief itself. Much will depend on how Khan casts the choice of a new army chief, if indeed the current coalition limps on until then.

The contortions ahead suggest a bigger challenge for the next army chief: re-thinking the army’s role in Pakistani state and society, especially the political arena. Khan has unleashed a wave of dissent that will not easily be ignored. It cannot be business as usual next time. But as the arrest of a top adviser to Khan, Shahbaz Gill, for allegedly inciting mutiny in the military indicates, charting a new course may be difficult for all sides. 

What are the implications of this ongoing political and economic crisis for Pakistan’s foreign and security policy?

Salikuddin: The political tumult over the last few months has focused both politicians and the military establishment inward on domestic concerns, seemingly making new foreign policy initiatives less important. Khan’s accusations of a U.S. plot to oust him from office have divided public opinion severely, with his supporters firmly believing the anti-U.S. rhetoric. The establishment has tried to publicly undercut the anti-U.S. conspiracy theories, and Prime Minister Sharif’s government has been actively pursuing outreach to the United States to try to repair the relationship. Pakistan’s efforts to rebalance relations with both the United States and China are proving to be more tortuous than planned, with political uncertainty dominating attention and U.S.-China friction on the rise.

More recently, Pakistan’s flailing economy has put pressure on both civilian and military leaders to reach out to key allies to secure loans and save the country from default. While Pakistan has previously seen economic crises, this time around both continued political uncertainty and global economic conditions have exacerbated the nature of the problem. In late July, Army Chief Bajwa reached out directly to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to seek U.S. assistance in securing the early release of IMF loans. With the rupee’s devaluation stunning Pakistanis and the need for bridge loans imminent, General Bajwa is also seeking help from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. While military involvement is not unprecedented, Bajwa’s calls highlight the level of concern about the economy and the continued negotiation of civil-military balance. Pakistani leaders are also seeking Chinese assistance, and Sharif has reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

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