South Asia

At the Heart of Imran Khan's Loss of Power – the Economy

Perhaps Imran Khan and his supporters actually believed in their simplistic economic rhetoric against corruption and discounted the importance of actual economic management. The cost of this has been high.

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On Saturday, April 9, Imran Khan finally lost the confidence vote he had desperately tried to stave off. 

Facing a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly – that they were certain to lose – Khan and his close associates tried to circumvent established procedure with a series of coordinated actions. 

The recently appointed law minister argued that the resolution for the vote of no confidence should be declared unconstitutional, the deputy speaker complied and prorogued the assembly session, and Khan advised the President to dissolve the assembly and thus the government. 

Days before this Sunday ‘surprise’ Khan had instructed his hand-picked Chief Minister of Punjab who was also facing imminent defeat in a no confidence motion in the country’s largest province to relinquish his post. 

With the Supreme Court of Pakistan taking up the dissolution decision, it became clear that Imran Khan’s end was upon him. Saturday’s vote in the National Assembly has formalised his ouster. For the former cricketer-turned-charity worker-turned-political leader who had believed his position to be unassailable until a few weeks ago, this has been a stunning reversal of fortunes.

Even while the legality of Khan’s manoeuvres were being tested in court, his large and ardent band of supporters in social media were jubilant that he had outsmarted an opposition that had him cornered. Khan himself appeared to believe the court would back him, and that even if the judges failed to overlook his rule-breaking, public opinion would force the speedy convening of fresh elections which he is convinced he will win.  

It is not clear what these presumptions might be based on. 

Also read: A Rogue Imran Khan Has Launched a Frontal Assault on Democracy in Pakistan

There is a history in Pakistan of courts allowing compromise options at times of constitutional upheaval on the grounds that the overall stability of the system is best protected by overlooking rather than punishing violations. But judges have also asserted and guarded their prerogative as interpreters of the constitution. They were not likely to allow a deputy speaker to encroach upon the hallowed ground of constitutional rulings. 

As for the public, Khan has based his strategy on the claim that the opposition’s move against him was part of an American conspiracy against Pakistan’s political independence. He has not yet been able to substantiate this claim. And even though most Pakistanis deeply resent foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs, foreign policy – even with respect to India – rarely becomes a vote-winner in electoral politics.

What does matter in terms of a government’s legitimacy or a party’s electoral appeal is the electorate’s perception of its credibility with respect to economic management. 

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan with Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Photo: Twitter/PTIofficial.

Khan’s campaign against corruption struck a chord with many in the aftermath of the Panama scandal which revealed off-shore investments held by then prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Former President Asif Ali Zardari had also been the subject of an unrelenting stream of accusations of corruption – none of them actually proven in a court – going back three decades.

Khan tapped into a fallacious yet appealing belief among ordinary voters that their economic woes were directly attributable to the wealth accumulated by ‘corrupt’ politicians. It was a narrative favoured by the country’s powerful military which positioned itself, through its de facto control of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), as an anti-corruption watchdog.

The judiciary, relatively less tainted by accusations of institutional overreach than the military, presented itself as an even more principled crusader against corruption.

But it was Khan who communicated this economic fallacy powerfully and in simple terms. He convinced many voters that the election of a ‘clean’ leader was all that stood between them and prosperity. Foreign exchange would start gushing into Pakistan. Billions of dollars would be recovered from off-shore accounts of ‘corrupt’ politicians. Overseas Pakistanis would repatriate all of their savings. And impressed by clean leadership, foreign investors would pour in uncounted more billions. 

Also read: Pakistan Army Continues Proxy Wars Across Borders and Plunder at Home

So utterly consumed was he by this anti-corruption rhetoric that his administration could not see that the outgoing government was leaving with an impending economic meltdown born not out of petty corruption but massive economic mismanagement. They had taken the time-honoured Pakistani route to first stabilising the economy by building up a war chest, and then triggering an artificial and unsustainable consumption boom.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to say that Khan and his supporters actually believed in their simplistic economic rhetoric and discounted the importance of sound management. Khan – who while in opposition had railed against the IMF – could have used some of his formidable political capital to ‘sell’ a painful stabilisation programme soon after assuming office, while shifting the blame on to the previous government. 

Instead, he and his ministers continued to peddle the myth of incoming dollars, and joined hands with the military and the judiciary to launch an anti-corruption witch-hunt aimed at opposition politicians and their supposed collaborators in the bureaucracy. The economic situation continued to slide and after much dithering the country did finally go for an IMF programme one year later, and in much worse economic shape. The sheen had already come off Khan’s promise of a new and prosperous Pakistan.

The anti-corruption campaign had other consequences which appeared to have been missed by Khan and his supporters.  It choked up most of the engines of growth in the domestic economy, and also paralysed effective decision-making within government. 

As senior civil servants were hauled up before courts and put into detention for actions taken in office – with not enough evidence to secure any convictions – the bureaucracy went on a virtual strike. Decisions involving government spending and regulatory actions were stalled, with shortages and price hikes across commodities and sectors of the economy where government regulation is important. 

Private investment dried up not only due to the economic crisis but also because retrospective regulatory actions dented confidence in the security of transactions. The economy had already seen two years of stagnation and insecurity by the time the COVID-19 pandemic came.

Also read: Lockdown: Lives vs Livelihoods Debate Can’t Be Settled By Analytics Alone

Two years into office, the opposition narrative of a ‘selected’ and ‘incompetent’ government was beginning to gain traction among voters. In fact, the label of being a selected rather than freely elected government had haunted Khan’s administration from the start. 

There is now sufficient evidence of behind the scenes moves by the country’s powerful military establishment to get rid of Nawaz Sharif and to support Imran Khan into power. The idea that instead of moving forward in its democratic transition, Pakistan had regressed into a hybrid regime, was widely accepted by political observers within the country and outside.

Khan and his ‘selectors’ did not obviously agree that the democratic process had been subverted, but also did not particularly object to the charge that there was great closeness between the elected government and the security establishment. It was promoted as a positive thing that ‘everyone was on the same page’.

Except that failures of economic management – manifested in terms of price spirals, shortages, inflation and lay-offs – exposed not only the fallacy of the anti-corruption model promoted by Khan and his allies. The close identification between Khan and his backers in the state meant that the ‘selectors’ were seen to be as responsible, if not more, for the country’s problems. 

Much has been made of emerging differences between Khan and the military chief on a range of issues – including the service tenure of the chief himself, and appointments of other senior officers.  While these personal differences are, undoubtedly, important in Khan’s fall from grace, they do not necessarily imply that the ‘selectors’ actively worked for his slide. 

Opposition parties have displayed resilience and skill in countering Khan politically. Thus far the evidence suggests that the ‘selectors’ aided the opposition not by actively undermining Khan, but by simply allowing the opposition to build up its campaign.

Pakistan’s political history is punctuated not only with military takeovers, but also by the military’s withdrawal from the front office in favour of elected politicians. This usually occurs at times when the institution itself is threatened with the loss of legitimacy – because of successful oppositional movements, a military setback, economic crisis, or a combination of these.

Also read: In Pakistan, the Junta Hangs on to Its ‘Imran Khan Project’

The post-2008 period is the longest stretch in the county of continuous civilian government, even if most observers classified the Khan government as a hybrid regime. If the country has made a slow transition to civilian government – even if it is only in name – the Khan interlude may come to be seen as an attempt by the military to have its cake and eat it too. It will also be seen as an attempt that failed. The close identification of the ‘selectors’ with the ‘selected’ left little wriggle room for the institution to escape popular discontent with the performance of the ‘selected’. 

The failure of this experiment may lead to democratic consolidation, though there remains much work to be done. And in the absence of credible solutions to long term economic problems, there is no saying that temptations for further experiments will not arise in the future.

Haris Gazdar is a Senior Researcher at Collective for Social Science Research, Karachi.