Pakistan is once again on the brink

After the dissolution of parliament and an increase in tensions between the military and the Khan government, Pakistan is gearing up for a tense political battle.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during an interview
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during an interview with Reuters in Islamabad, Pakistan June 4, 2021 [Saiyna Bashir/File Photo/Reuters]

In a dramatic move on Sunday, Pakistani President Arif Alvi dissolved the country’s parliamentary assembly on the advice of the country’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, essentially taking the country one step closer to early elections.

The twist is the latest in a long-brewing political battle that had pitted 69-year-old Khan against a vote of no confidence introduced by the country’s combined opposition parties and which, until Sunday, the prime minister looked certain to lose.

Hours before Sunday’s dissolution of the National Assembly by the president, the deputy speaker of the Assembly – an ally of the prime minister – declared the vote unconstitutional and part of a plot by “foreign powers” to interfere in Pakistan’s democratic process.

With the Assembly now dissolved, the Constitution requires that an interim government be established with input from the opposition and that a general election be held within 90 days. Pakistan’s parliament had originally been slated to complete its five-year tenure in August 2023.

While the constitutionality of the attempt to dismiss the no-confidence vote is considered by Pakistan’s highest court, it is the country’s tense relationship with the United States that has found itself in the eye of the storm.

The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has accused the US of interfering in the country’s politics and trying to instigate regime change. The basis of the allegation is a purported cable from Pakistan’s outgoing ambassador to the US, who relayed in writing to Islamabad the minutes of a terse meeting with US officials in Washington, DC, on March 7. The memorandum implied that the US was unlikely to engage with Pakistan until after the opposition’s vote of no-confidence against the prime minister.

The PTI government has taken issue with the content of the message, claiming it to be evidence of the West’s disinclination towards Khan and retribution for Pakistan’s relatively neutral position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office has also issued a diplomatic note to the US Embassy in Islamabad to register its anger over the message. While the US Department of State has denied claims of interfering in Pakistan’s internal politics, the allegations have become crisis fodder for Khan’s magnetic brand of populist politics.

Khan’s rhetoric has increasingly been styled around anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism, both of which are popular among large sections of Pakistani society that view the US and its high-handed involvement in the region less than favourably.

For weeks, Khan has maintained that the West has been trying to push back on Pakistan’s foreign policy, and has been upset with him for visiting Moscow on the eve of the invasion.

But on Saturday, a day before the dissolution of parliament, Pakistan’s army chief General Bajwa publicly contradicted the prime minister by saying Pakistan and the US enjoyed a “long and excellent relationship”. Speaking at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, General Bajwa also publicly criticised Russia’s military attack on Ukraine, calling for an immediate cessation of what he described as a “huge tragedy” being inflicted on a smaller country. His stern remarks are distinctly at odds with the Prime Minister’s clear refusal to criticise Russia’s actions.

While the military has verbally distanced itself from the political storm that has gripped Islamabad, General Bajwa’s statements at the security conclave confirm suspicions that meaningful differences may have emerged between the military and the country’s elected civilian government in key areas.

Last year, the army held firm after Khan tried to delay signing a notification appointing Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum as the chief of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The standoff between the prime minister and the military marked the first open break in a relationship that had until that point been more or less characterised by consensus and harmony.

The country’s opposition parties had, until then, accused the military of tacitly supporting Khan through the country’s 2018 general election, and of underwriting his premiership.

But the military now seems wary of the stridency of Khan’s push for what is being billed as an independent, populist foreign policy that is not afraid to incur national costs.

The army has been keen to steady, if not mend, Pakistan’s failing relationship with the West, based partly on an internal realisation that the country could quickly become a casualty in great power politics which could imperil national efforts to stabilise the economy.

In 2019, Pakistan and the International Monetary Fund inked a $6bn rescue package, requiring it to undertake unpopular fiscal tightening measures at home. In a bid to stave off public pressure and political criticism suggesting he had compromised on Pakistan’s sovereignty in doing so, Khan announced a freeze on petrol and electricity prices (despite a steep rise in the global oil market) in February 2022.

The latest political struggle has led to tough questions from the IMF and increased concerns around the country’s default risk.

Despite the somewhat smooth sailing of the first few years of the PTI’s time in power, Pakistan’s civil-military relationship is historically no stranger to political intrigue.

In 2016, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made himself unpopular with the military’s top brass for trying to wrest control of the country’s foreign policy on India. Things came to a head in October that year after the civilian government reportedly informed the military leadership of Pakistan’s growing international isolation on account of the military’s interference in politics and its support for non-state fighter groups.

Sharif was shortly thereafter ousted by the country’s Supreme Court. He accused the military of interfering in Pakistan’s democracy.

Analogous fault lines seem to be emerging in Pakistan’s latest political crisis, many elements of which are unprecedented even in Pakistan’s turbulent democratic history.

As the country’s Supreme Court debates the constitutionality of the deputy speaker’s dismissal of the vote of no confidence against Khan, it has also cautioned the country’s institutions to not get entangled in its politics – a reference no doubt to the military’s history of political interventions.

Elections, should they go ahead, are likely to be highly charged, with Khan cashing in on not just his own popularity but also his claims of being disliked by Western powers. The leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, Shehbaz Sharif, who would likely have been prime minister had the vote of no confidence gone ahead on Sunday, may legally challenge the prime minister’s latest moves and argue that Khan’s politics are a liability for Pakistan’s economy and its relations with the West. With the country now bracing for a pitched political battle at home and in its foreign relations, and the spectre of possible military intervention, Pakistan, once again, finds itself on the brink.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.