Imran Khan’s Ouster: Why Did The Hybrid Regime Collapse?

The dramatic events of March-April 2022 highlight the breakdown within the hybrid regime. Of late Khan’s cronies have admitted the conflict with the establishment as the key driver of this change

Imran Khan was ousted from the Prime Minister’s Office on the night of April 10 through a vote of no confidence that came in the wake of an intense drama played out in the corridors of power for weeks. By the time Imran Khan left office, he had violated the Constitution, unsuccessfully attempted to fire the Army Chief and had initiated a divisive public campaign that continues a month after his exit from the PM House.

Imran Khan’s ouster was not a simple change of a Prime Minister or a cabinet. In fact, contrary to the more cynical interpretations, it denotes the end of a hybrid regime that was painstakingly installed through a controversial, rigged election of 2018 – with overt interference and deliberation by the military-judicial establishment. It is, therefore, an intriguing question as to why such a hybrid experiment was abandoned within nearly four years. Even more intriguing is the fact that a political dynasty removed from power through judicial means with the support of corporate media is back in power. Such a volte face is not uncommon in Pakistan’s political history. However, this time the ‘course correction’ was swift by Pakistani standards.

Imran Khan’s claim – largely unsubstantiated – for public consumption is that his ouster from office came about through a conspiracy hatched at the behest of the United States. Many a naïve political observer at home and abroad is tempted to buy into Khan’s explanation, including some left-wing commentators who are always quick to point out the machinations of the US empire in the Global South. Much to their dismay, no such intervention by the US was at play. The dramatic events of March-April 2022 were simply the result of a breakdown within the hybrid regime that I had pointed out last year in this piece. Of late Imran Khan’s cronies have (rightly) pointed out the conflict with the military establishment as the key driver of this change, and that, sadly, defines how governments are installed and removed from office in Pakistan.

Economic bankruptcy at the gates

Within months of Imran Khan’s ascension to power, the military establishment figured out that he had no plan to ‘fix’ the economy that had been seriously battered due to political instability during the Panama Papers crisis and thereafter. Admittedly, the PML-N, despite high growth rates, left the economy in precarious state with critics arguing that the exchange-rate regime had been manipulated, thereby creating an unsustainable situation.

However, Imran Khan’s lack of experience and his inability to take quick and difficult decisions made the situation far worse. Between 2018-19, Pakistan’s GDP fell to 1%. Furthermore between 2019-20, the GDP per capita contracted another 3% in constant dollar terms and 8% in current dollar terms, displaying the effects of the rupee’s depreciation. The overall decline in output became a consistent trend until Covid-19 hit the globe. Despite the effects of the pandemic, other economies in the region – particularly China, India and Bangladesh – experienced a quicker recovery than Pakistan. In 2022-23, India and Bangladesh will grow on average between 6 to 8%, while Pakistan’s growth rate has been estimated at 3 to 4%. But it was the depleting net reserves of the State Bank of Pakistan that led to borrowing of historic proportions under Imran Khan’s regime, making it the worst phase of indebtedness in Pakistan’s history. The situation came to such a pass that 60% of the defence budget was being financed through borrowing. Let’s face it: this is an untenable situation for the all-powerful military, which had earlier assumed that Imran Khan had the ‘credibility’ and ‘honesty’ to turn around the economic fortunes of the country.

But the elite’s anxiety was already dwarfed by public discontent over the historic highs in inflation – well before Covid-19 affected global prices. The food inflation in Pakistan’s urban and rural areas has been a major source of hardship for the working classes as well as the fixed-income groups that comprise Pakistan’s large middle-class. A key reason for the increase in prices of essential commodities like sugar, wheat and medicines was the federal government’s mismanagement and corruption by cartels that were part of the ruling coalition and pillars of the hybrid order. Imran Khan’s cricketing and philanthropic achievements aside, his inability to govern was seriously exposed as he appeared clueless about the workings of the economy, how informal power structures interacted with formal decision-making and why the man in charge had to navigate these troubled waters. Sadly, many members of his team were part and parcel of the interest groups that profit from their access to state power and operate with virtual impunity.

Whither anti-corruption rhetoric?

Corruption in Pakistan is systemic and the simplistic reductionism of Imran Khan and the military establishment has been a ruse for political engineering. Imran Khan has popularised the theory that “a few corrupt politicians” in positions of power are the source of corruption in the country. But in terms of governance, such ill-informed ideas are likely to fail: as they did, indeed, under Imran Khan’s rule. The biggest blow to the hybrid regime came when the global watchdog Transparency International indicated that Pakistan had slid 16 spots down the Corruption Perceptions Index that it publishes annually. This survey is based on perceptions, and therefore it only records how people view the incidence of corruption in their everyday lives. This serious blow to Imran Khan’s anti-corruption stance and decade-long campaigning was a result of both the overall incompetence of his government as well as the inability to focus on institutional strengthening.

The infamous National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for more than 3 years became a tool for witch-hunts and nearly every political opponent of Imran Khan from the current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to former President Asif Ali Zardari found themselves hounded and locked up for months on end. The Chairman of NAB was given an additional term through highly dubious means when the law clearly stipulates that such extensions cannot be granted. Similarly, the provincial administrations of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, handed over to incompetent and obscure small-time politicians, became open fields of graft and malfeasance. It is only now that reports of brazen corruption, directly linked to the household of Imran Khan and his cronies, are coming into public view. But people already knew what was going on, especially in Punjab. Even more crucially, the military establishment was fully aware of the mismanagement that had become a public joke.

Imran Khan’s cricketing and philanthropic achievements aside, his inability to govern was seriously exposed as he appeared clueless about the workings of the economy and how informal power structures interacted with formal decision-making

Nawaz Sharif’s pushback

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who was disqualified by the Supreme Court in 2017, ostensibly under the pressure of the security establishment of the country, was looking for the right moment to strike back at his detractors in Rawalpindi. The soaring inflation, maladministration in Punjab and the popular questioning of the logic of the hybrid order were deftly encashed by a united opposition under Nawaz Sharif. In September 2020, the formation of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) was followed by hard-hitting attacks on the military leadership by Nawaz Sharif and his party. In his critique of Imran Khan’s governance, Sharif reminded his support base that it was not Imran who ought to be blamed for the woes of ordinary Pakistanis, but the generals who had invested in him. For the next one year, this narrative, despite a media ban on Nawaz Sharif’s speeches, turned into a nightmare for the establishment, that has always valued its prestige in the Punjab province, where the majority of soldiers and officers alike are recruited from.

Even though the PDM split by early 2021, the message was out in the public domain. This particular popular narrative also enabled the PML-N to win all the by-elections except two in the country, and mount an effective pressure for ‘course correction.’ By Fall 2021, the establishment was deliberating on how to deal with an intractable situation, where on the one hand the united opposition was taking it to the cleaners, and on the other, their own selected man had turned out to be supremely incompetent at reviving the economy or punishing the ‘corrupt.’ But the situation was exacerbated by the growing isolation of Pakistan in the international arena and the difficulty in seeking economic assistance from multilateral institutions and advanced economies.

The high costs of a populist foreign policy

Imran Khan’s populist posturing may earn him some domestic applause, but it became a liability for Pakistan’s foreign policy establishment. In 2018, the Army Chief General Bajwa publicly expressed his intent to normalise relations with India. Modi’s brutal annexation of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 may have caused some policy shifts on that front. However, Imran Khan took it to another level by repeatedly referring to his Indian counterpart as a ”fascist” – and kept up a hawkish posture throughout his term.

In addition, General Bajwa has been continuously underscoring the importance of Pakistan’s relationship with the West, which is not an individual’s wish but an institutional necessity rooted in Pakistan’s perceived insecurity vis-à-vis India and its reliance on US military assistance over the last seven decades. Imran Khan as prime minister was quick to make anti-Americanism a plank of his popular discourse. However, in a globalised information age, domestic posturing can spill over into relations between states. He rather pompously said “Absolutely not” to an imagined demand by the US for military bases. Adding insult to injury, Khan termed the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan as “breaking the shackles of slavery,” conveniently forgetting that Pakistan’s military had – at least in theory – been a frontline state in the so-called War on Terror. Such hyper-nationalist rhetoric can work in situations where necessary economic restructuring takes place in pursuit of ‘self-reliance.’ But it was baffling to see a head of government seeking two IMF programmes during his tenure, striving to keep the country out of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) black-list, seeking remittances from Pakistanis in the US, earning export dollars from the same country – and yet trying to earn brownie points via anti-US tirades.  Obviously, this did not go down well with the Americans, and President Biden did not call Imran Khan despite public reminders by Pakistan’s National Security Advisor and other officials of the state. There was a little break earlier in 2019 when Trump invited Khan to the White House mainly for short term objective of US’s exit from Afghanistan which did take place but overall the relationship remain stalled.

Alienating the US has come at a heavy cost: Pakistan’s traditional allies in the Persian Gulf region are all in the American camp. But Imran Khan and his foreign minister’s diplomatic blunders also resulted in creating a distance with Saudi Arabia, that has traditionally been a life-support mechanism for Pakistan’s economy.

But China, the ‘All-Weather Friend’ of Pakistan, was also angered by Imran Khan’s ministers, when they started their term in office with allegations of corruption in the implementation of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Such was the extent of the blunder that after the commerce minister’s complaints about CPEC, General Bajwa had to fly to Beijing to fix things. CPEC, for all practical purposes, was put on a hold: partly as a signal to the West, but more importantly due to a sinking economy that simply could not afford more borrowing from Chinese banks and had no revenues to invest in large-scale infrastructure projects. Khan’s visit to Russia as it attacked Ukraine was not just counterproductive. It was simply embarrassing and a meaningless act of domestic grandstanding.

By the end of 2021, Pakistan’s troubled foreign relations were fueling its economic crisis, undermining its long-term strategic interests and seemed mired in the populist rhetoric of Imran Khan.

Shooting himself in the foot

In October 2021, the transitional moment arrived with the dispute over the appointment of the Director General (DG) of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The military chief decided to change the incumbent Gen. Faiz Hameed and post him as a corps commander. Serving as a field commander is a requirement for promotion, and also necessary to be considered as a contender for the post of Army Chief (COAS). Imran Khan dragged his feet as he viewed Gen. Hameed as his “eyes and ears.” The involvement of the ISI in political configurations is among the worst-kept secrets in Pakistani politics. DG ISI, in theory, serves at the pleasure of the PM, so Imran Khan had a point here. Yet his concern was not about civilian authority itself, and more about his attempt to employ the vast network of ISI to maintain his hold in power and, according to some observers, win the next election. Imran Khan, if he had survived in power, would have appointed the next Army Chief in November 2022. Sources close to power circles hold that Imran Khan was all set to appoint Gen. Hameed, though Khan in an interview on May 6 has denied that.

This friction over the appointments became a turning point. Instead of outright intervention, the military commanders thought that they would turn ‘neutral.’ The opposition, sensing the opportune moment, leapt up and reunited with the single-point agenda to bring a vote of no-confidence against Imran Khan. They buried their differences and mutual bickering, targeting the smaller allies of Imran Khan’s coalition as well as the MNAs who were dismayed with the three-year record of their government.

By February, the tables had turned, and it was clear that Imran Khan had lost the majority in the Parliament.

By the end of 2021, Pakistan’s troubled foreign relations were fueling its economic crisis, undermining its long-term strategic interests and seemed mired in the populist rhetoric of Imran Khan.

Trashing the constitution

Imran Khan’s response was swift. He described ‘neutrality’ as a trait of ‘animals’ – a poorly veiled jab at the military leadership – and framed his own exercise of power as a divinely ordained right to do ‘good’ and fight the ‘evil,’ i.e., the opposition parties that had secured two-thirds of the popular vote even in the managed elections of 2018.

The vote of no-confidence was tabled in March 2022 and that is when a cable from Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the US was used a ‘proof’ of conspiracy against his government. Since Khan could not openly challenge the military leadership, the attacks on the US were oblique references to the powerful institution that has consistently aimed to remain a Western ally since the Cold War days.

The vote of no confidence was scuttled by terming the opposition as ‘traitors,’ participants in a foreign conspiracy. After denying the vote, Khan as PM advised the President to dissolve the assemblies. He simply couldn’t have done it as he had lost the majority in the parliament and this was blatantly unconstitutional. It took the Supreme Court nearly a week to order a vote on April 10, and even on that day, Imran Khan was in no mood to let the voting take place. The Supreme Court’s verdict made it clear that by derailing the constitutional process, Imran Khan and the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly had subverted the supreme law.

Instead of implementing the court’s verdict on April 10, as BBC and other outlets reported, Khan unsuccessfully tried to change the Army Chief! But the Islamabad High Court (IHC) was ready to entertain a petition in the night, if that order came in writing; and the Supreme Court offices were opened to enforce its own earlier orders that voting take place. Finally, an intervention by the powers-that-be enabled the assembly to carry out the vote. And so, in a manner reminiscent of Trump’s exit from office, an effort to undo the system was foiled. Those sympathetic to Imran Khan say that such judicial intervention was wrong, but they fail to indicate what they see as the alternative to it. For a change, the Supreme Court enforced the law, and the military, instead of a direct takeover, actually enabled the constitutional process.

This was an extraordinary juncture in Pakistan’s recent history.

No sign of political stability

Since the time that parliament voted him out, Imran Khan has been indirectly targeting the military, and his supporters have orchestrated a campaign against the Army Chief. Using the social media platforms, his supporters have also amplified their public support and have used ex-servicemen to pressurise the military. Khan’s appointees in state offices – the President and the Governors – have been flouting their obligations by refusing to take oath from the prime minister and the chief minister Punjab. Polarisation and divisive narratives shape the political discourse. This was all bound to happen, as Imran Khan’s (lack of) commitment to democratic process and the constitution stands exposed. It would take a decade or more to undo the ill-effects of the ‘anti-politics’ rhetoric that shapes the worldview of the middle class that is Khan’s base.

Imran Khan will remain a relevant player, but he is unlikely to accept any defeat in the elections to come. Yet, his support base cannot deliver him an electoral victory. Therefore, they will seek the next opportunity for an extra-constitutional ‘victory’ with a favourable establishment.