How Imran Khan tampers with Pakistan’s Constitution to thwart vote of no confidence

It remains for the higher judiciary now to redeem its reputation of independence or the lack of it, as also to strike a balanced view on the very process of democratic consolidation in Pakistan

Rana Banerji April 05, 2022 11:50:50 IST
How Imran Khan tampers with Pakistan’s Constitution to thwart vote of no confidence

Imran Khan. AP

Imran Khan had been bragging openly about his “surprise” card to thwart the no-confidence vote against him. The unexpected happened on 3 April, as Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly (NA), Qasim Suri, ruled it illegal under Article 5 of the 1973 Constitution, on grounds of the Opposition having been in cahoots with “foreign powers” to overthrow the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government.

In a public meeting on 27 March, Imran Khan had waved an allegedly secret document purporting a foreign conspiracy to oust him. Meeting chosen media men, he later disclosed this was a report received from one of Pakistan’s ambassadors abroad. He also shared details in a meeting of the National Security Committee, where the three Service Chiefs, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and the DG, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were present.

Addressing the nation on 31 March, Imran tried to make much of this threat, accusing America in a feigned slip of tongue of wanting to oust him, only because he had refused to defer his visit to meet President Vladimir Putin in Russia, after the Ukraine invasion.

Shortly after the NA was prorogued on 3 April, Imran Khan advised President Arif Alvi to dissolve the NA under Article 58 and order fresh elections, which the latter promptly rubber-stamped.

Though initially taken aback, Opposition MNAs gathered in the NA on 3 April, resorted to a prolonged sit-in, thereafter passing a “symbolic no-confidence resolution”, with support of close to 200 MNAs. They refrained from any further unruly actions and decided to seek judicial redress.

Conventional legal wisdom in parliamentary democracies accepts that once a no-confidence motion is tabled on the floor of the House, voting on it is mandatory. Also, the prime minister cannot thereafter recommend dissolution of the House till it is voted upon, nor is the president bound to accept the prime minister’s advice. All these norms appear to have been blatantly flouted.


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Though refusing to stay the orders, Chief Justice (CJ) Omar Ata Bandial took suo motu notice of these developments under Article 184 (3). He observed that the relevant orders would be examined by the Supreme Court. He also urged state institutions to refrain from taking any unconstitutional steps. On 4 April, he referred the matter to the same larger, five-member bench constituted earlier on the Presidential reference sent to the Supreme Court on 21 March, questioning legality of defectors’ votes under Article 63 A of the Constitution and “conscience voting” under Article 95.

Hearings are now on before this bench.

The president has, meanwhile, forwarded the name of recently retired former Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed as caretaker prime minister, suggested by Imran Khan, to Opposition leader, Shahbaz Sharif, who has however, refrained from giving his consent. This constitutional impasse will have to be resolved soon.

In case the constitutional status quo stands restored by the Supreme Court, the no-confidence vote will still require to be passed against Imran Khan in the NA. In case he loses, as seems inevitable, he will have to resign. A new prime minister will have to be chosen in a fresh session of the NA.

As things stand within the combined Opposition, if the Deputy Speaker’s order is struck down as mala fide, former Punjab Chief Minister and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader, Shahbaz Sharif, who has tried to carefully maintain a greater degree of acceptability before the military establishment, is likely to be chosen the new prime minister.

If, on the other hand, the Supreme Court side-steps the Speaker/Deputy Speaker’s action and the President’s NA dissolution order stands, elections will have to be held within 90 days, possibly after Ramzan ends and the Budget is passed in mid-June. These elections would only affect the NA, not Provincial Assemblies.

In Punjab, another political crisis has erupted. Chief Minister Usman Buzdar was asked by Imran Khan to resign, to accommodate PML(Q)’s Pervez Elahi, but the session to elect the new chief minister has been deferred to 6 April. Meanwhile, Punjab Governor Chaudhry Sarwar has been sacked and a PTI acolyte, Omar Sarfaraz Cheema, has been appointed the new Governor, who may promulgate Governor’s rule.

The military establishment, through the DG, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) distanced itself from these developments on 3 April, albeit in a rather lukewarm manner. Significantly, speaking at the Islamabad Security Dialogue on 2 April, Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa struck a different, even positive note on the state of Pakistan-America relations, quite far removed from Imran’s ranting about a foreign conspiracy against his government. This indicated persisting differences between the Army and Imran Khan, as also perhaps, unity within the senior Army leadership.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Imran has been positioning himself for “a second innings”, after the elections, based on a populist mixture of anti-Americanism, radical Islam and anti-corruption rhetoric, the last itself being questionable. After he is out of power, many more skeletons of misrule and corruption may emerge, especially in Punjab. Already, Aleem Khan, a PTI member of Punjab’s Assembly, has made serious allegations. Nevertheless, this posturing may have helped revive enthusiasm among Imran’s hard-core PTI followers, who hail from the urban youth and middle class.

Even as the civil-military imbalance in Pakistan continues to prevail, the Army still tightly controls security and foreign policies. Its adversarial posture against India has shown no change, even though for difficult economic reasons, opening up of trade and resumption of dialogue with India is currently being espoused by its leadership. In this backdrop, it remains for India to keep watching the evolving situation very carefully. If elections ensue soon, nothing major would have changed through this replacement of one weak civilian dispensation with another.

Domestic political instability is likely to persist in Pakistan in the foreseeable future. It remains for its higher judiciary now to redeem its own reputation of independence or the lack of it, as also to strike a balanced view on the very process of democratic consolidation in Pakistan.

The writer is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views expressed are personal.

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