The story could only get murkier. After all, a Prime Minister has just upended his Parliament, used the Deputy Speaker for his own gain, and, staggeringly, accused a foreign power of trying to unseat his government. The Supreme court has now effectively reversed this and allowed a no-confidence motion to take place, even as rumours say that Imran Khan may have manoeuvred a split in the army – the only reasonably stable institution in the country – by backing his favourite horse for the post of Army Chief in his next government.
That favourite is, naturally, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, former Director-General Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI) and present Corps Commander Peshawar, whom Imran had tried to retain as Intelligence Chief in the face of the most fearsome odds.
Never in its tumultuous history has Pakistan seen constitutional acrobatics on such a scale, and there is no indication that its effects are likely to be short-lived. Trouble is coming.
No Confidence In Anything at All
Few will forget the dramatic turnaround of Khan’s fortunes on 3 April, when the Opposition’s no-confidence motion, clearly with the required numbers, was dismissed entirely by the most pliant of Parliamentarians, Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri, after Information Minister Fawad Choudhry declared that ‘foreign powers’ were interfering in the country’s politics. The charge – that a Pakistani Ambassador had been told at a meeting with foreign dignitaries that Imran Khan should be removed and then ‘all would be forgiven’ – was accepted in its entirety without even a single question, and the Assembly itself was dissolved on the ‘advice’ of the Prime Minister to the President.
Even for a country that has time and again seen dictators twist the Constitution to suit their own ends, this was a new low.
The Court Sits Up
The Supreme Court in Pakistan took up the matter in public interest under Article 184 of the Constitution, which gives the court superseding authority where Fundamental Rights are concerned. In so doing, the court neatly rode over the arguments of the President’s counsel, Barrister Ali Zafar, who, to put it simply, said that Parliament proceedings were of no business for the court. That the judgment would find the Deputy Speaker’s actions in violation of the Constitution was a foregone conclusion.
The Attorney-General of Pakistan excused himself from defending the Speaker’s actions, and earlier, the Deputy Attorney-General had already resigned on 3 April, all of which served to mark the future turn of events. The court, however, was clearly concerned about the future of the country – and perhaps unsure that the ‘united opposition’ would at all stay united, leading to another spate of instability.
Most problematic of all, however, was that the Election Commission of Pakistan stated that it could not hold elections at least till October due to difficulties in the delimitation of constituencies, along with the non-release of Census data. Constitutional practice requires that new elections be held within 90 days of the dissolution of the Assembly, and there is no directive as to how to proceed beyond this.
Therefore, the ruling indicates that the court thought it prudent to allow Parliament to reconvene and designate a new Prime Minister, thus allowing the continuance of the present Assembly till 2023, when general elections will be due.
It has, however, held that Article 63, which deals with defection, would remain operative. Now, all the Opposition has to do is ensure that the no-confidence motion has the continued backing of the Muttahida Quami Movement (Pakistan), that ebullient party that brought the PTI house crashing down by withdrawing its support (six seats) on 30 March. It is generally thought to be amenable to ‘persuasion’ by the establishment, though it is also considered close to ‘London’, which in Karachi means Altaf Hussain. That means the Opposition doesn’t need the ‘dissidents’ and that it doesn’t have to worry about the legality of their votes.
The Plotters and the Plots
Unsurprisingly, the court has demanded details of the alleged ‘foreign plot’. According to Babar Awan, the lawyer of the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (PTI), this arose from a foreign office cypher message received on 7 March, regarding a meeting (date not apparently known by the PTI) that was attended by the deputy head of the mission, defence attaché and three other diplomats. The Foreign Office ‘examined’ the message and a National Security Council meeting (31 March) was thereafter briefed by NSA Moeed Yusuf about the "formal communication of a senior official of a foreign country" to Pakistan's ambassador.
It appears that Foreign Secretary Sohail Mehmood did not attend – though he was certainly in Islamabad at the time – the meeting with a German official to discuss Afghanistan. Awan offered to show the court the brief made by the Foreign Ministry in an in-camera hearing, which the court refused, noting there was nothing to justify such proceedings. Given that Awan, his party, and his Prime Minister have been shouting about the contents of the brief from the rooftops, it is difficult to understand why a secret hearing was asked for.
Then came a searing question. The honourable judges wanted to know what action had been taken against those involved in the conspiracy. The answer – nothing. Clearly, the state did not know specifics.
The Divisions Within?
To make matters even worse and muddier, along comes a disgruntled leader of the PTI – and there are many of them these days – who says that first, the secret letter doesn’t exist, and that it was in fact written by Asad Qaiser, the erstwhile Speaker of the House and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. Even more dangerously, he alleges that Khan was trying to get rid of the Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
That’s explosive. The charge has some credibility given the face-off between the two over the appointment of a new DG ISI. Khan wanted to retain Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who had helped pull down a no-confidence vote late in 2019 with a series of arrests and cases against Opposition leaders. The Army insisted, however, that Hameed complete his Corps Command tenure – a genuine requirement to be the next chief – and appointed Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum instead.
The latter has been virtually invisible since then, unlike the flamboyant Hameed. General Bajwa is to retire on 22 November (if the court order is followed), which means that Lt Gen Faiz is virtually certain to become the next Chief given the patronage of the Prime Minister. Now, Twitter is agog with speculation that this has been the plan all along, with analysts opining that a faction within the Army is opposing the Army Chief.
So far, this is a rumour, but it does seem unlikely that Imran Khan would take so drastic a step without support from someone from within the powerful army.
Meanwhile, consider this. A report has stated that the security agencies – read ISI – have found “no credible evidence” to back the Prime Minister’s claim. Someone is not playing ball.
Now, it appears that Imran Khan’s plan has unravelled. If the no-confidence motion succeeds, he will be out of power and open to scrutiny. Clearly, immediate elections are not possible, which means he can’t capitalise on his stunning (near) win of crushing the Opposition. On the other hand, it’s a win for the Opposition who want time to put in ‘electoral reforms’ (read less interference from the National Accountability Bureau) and time to also bring out the scandals – like that of Farah Khan, a friend of Bushra Khan, the first lady, who left the country along with her husband as Imran Khan’s conspiracy case collapsed. She is alleged to have made billions in ensuring specific appointments.
However, Khan’s team has not so far been without a comeback to a body blow. That could be the demand, that the court set up a Commission of Enquiry along the lines of Memogate back in 2012. At the time, Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz had claimed that Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, had asked him to deliver a confidential memo to Admiral Mike Mullen calling for ‘protection’ against a possible military takeover.
It is a shrewd thrust, given that the parallels are broadly similar in terms of ‘foreign interference’. But then-President Zardari was hated by the establishment. Now, the shoe may be on the other foot, with much of the government – even apart from the Army – likely to be opposed to the kind of instability that may result from another bout of commissions and enquiries.
Foreign Office Unhappy With 'Politicisation'
Reports suggest that the Foreign Office is unhappy with the ‘politicisation’ of a diplomatic cable, while the Finance Ministry is hardly likely to be sanguine about the pounding of the Pakistani rupee to an unprecedented PKR 189 to the dollar, even as the Karachi Stock Exchange plunged.
This is Pakistan in a strange situation.
Even as Imran rants against the US, the Army Chief is trying to stabilise the situation by reaching out to the United States, calling for ‘balance’ with reference to Islamabad’s close relations with China, and hinting that Pakistan wants US weapons. Everyone knows that this is the path to win hearts at the Pentagon.
That is a move India needs to watch, even as it is being pressured simultaneously to give up on its Russian arsenal. The times, they are a-changing, and fast.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)