It took a minute for the deputy speaker to reject the no-trust motion. In another few minutes, Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared on television to say he had advised the president to dissolve the assembly
ourteen kilometres from Islamabad’s Central Park (or F-9 Park), where the green and red of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s colours glittered in a firework display on Tuesday night, is the Constitution Avenue. The mood is far more sombre there, where the business of government is run. At the end of the broad avenue flanked by stands for seating, is the Parliament House; behind it, the presidency, to the left the PM House and the secretariat, and further to the right the quadrangular that houses the serious Supreme Court.
Fireworks on the Constitution Avenue had already happened on Sunday, April 3, and the business of government lay buried under the ashes. On top of the heap stands Imran Khan, the ‘interim’ prime minister, unburdened of formal executive authority as the economy incinerates, but free to politick and hold forth on PTV.
It was a short burst. The business of the no-trust vote began just past noon. Minister for Information and Law Fawad Chaudhry rose. To his left, proudly sporting a scarf in PTI colours, was Economic Affairs Minister Omar Ayub Khan, who has jumped from the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) to Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) like a cat on a hot tin roof.
Citing Article 5(1) of the Constitution that speaks of loyalty to the state, Chaudhry asked the deputy speaker to dismiss the no confidence resolution based on the allegation of a plot to affect regime change through a collusion between a foreign power and the opposition. It took a minute for Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri to read his ruling and reject the no-trust motion. Another few minutes later, Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared on television in a pre-recorded broadcast and said he had advised the president to dissolve the assembly.
In under half an hour, everyone on the floor of the House was out of a job.
The working lunch
The manic lead-up to April 3 had kicked off two months earlier in the public eye when Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari met with PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif. Despite a bitter history – both recent and long-past – an ailing Zardari walking into the Sharif’s Model Town complex for lunch and political intrigue indicated that the two opposition parties meant business about a no-trust motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan.
This is PTI’s greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness: it depends on one man for the polls and plausibility.
This would be the opposition’s fourth big push to damage Khan through parliament – counting the failed move to remove the Senate chairman in 2019, the win-one lose-one Senate elections in 2021, and the acrimonious parting of ways a few months after the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) was launched. In between were myriad smaller cuts and bruises over legislation.
The opposition saw a two-fold opportunity with the crack between the military and the prime minister over the appointment of a spy chief in October 2021 and persistent inflation. The first provided the tactical political space, the latter the popular buy-in. Polls, by-elections and the first phase of the KP local body elections had shown that the PTI’s popularity had eroded on governance and inflation. Meanwhile, unhappy and side-lined PTI lawmakers were lurking in the wings.
The PTI was quick to react, another indication that the opposition was on to something. For a month, Khan and his team courted public opinion through rallies and influencers, built an alternate narrative, delayed the vote count, went to court and threw money at the public from fast-depleting coffers before using the sharpest tool in his kit at the March 27 rally.
He led rally after rally to canvas votes for the second phase of the KP local government elections and say what three and a half years of an unexceptional performance and multiple spokespersons could not – to the despair of the Election Commission of Pakistan and the delight of his supporters. This was Khan in form, an insult-generator and crowd-puller.
More importantly, he framed the vote of no confidence as the last grand battle between good and evil; forgiveness was to be dispensed at his leisure, disloyalty was high treason. This was also for his other constituency, the military establishment, whom he asked to shed their neutrality. It is hard to argue with presumed divinity; harder still to fact-check.
In the meantime, the numbers continued to stack up for the opposition. The PTI tried the legal route, going to the Supreme Court against dissident PTI lawmakers, hoping for a disqualification over the de-seating provided by law. Parvez Elahi’s last-minute ditching of the joint opposition was an exception. The government’s former allies gave them the safe numbers the dissident PTI MNAs could not.
With the numbers going fast, Khan played the dark foreign conspiracy card to a twinkly and large crowd on March 27. This laid the basis for April 3, the hook on which to hang the constitution.
After assuming that the 197 lawmakers prepared to vote against the former prime minister were linked to a foreign attempt at regime change, the deputy speaker’s ruling to dismiss the no-confidence motion called for an “investigation by appropriate forum or authority under the law” into the alleged nexus. Sentence first, investigate later.
A prime minister by any other name
On the eve of the 2018 elections, I interviewed Imran Khan and asked him whether he thought contesting on five seats was a waste of time and national resources given that by-elections needed to be held on vacated seats later. He shrugged. “What choice do I have?”
This is PTI’s greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness: it depends on one man for the polls and plausibility. That man has now chosen vacuum over government, divisiveness over conciliation, conquest over the constitution and politics over economy.
There are no more cabinet meetings to preside over. Meanwhile, the rupee sheds value, the IMF has suspended its programme in anticipation of the next government, more debt has piled up in the last three and a half years than the ten years before that, foreign exchange reserves are depleting, and inflation is in the double digits. But you know, the fireworks in a park on a balmy Islamabad spring night were swell.
The writer is director of the Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA