Pakistan: A Crisis at Every Turn
On April 10th, a coalition of opposition parties in the Pakistan National Assembly held a no-confidence vote to remove former Prime Minister Imran Khan from office. Khan had attempted to stall the vote multiple times, but his efforts were fruitless. By the next day, Khan was replaced by the opposition party leader and current Prime Minister Leader Shahbaz Sharif. However, Khan refused to back down and claimed that his position was unjustly taken from him, creating friction between the Pakistani public and the new Pakistani government, all while the nation continues to be rampaged by skyrocketing inflation and intense flooding.
- Khan incites protests throughout Pakistan
- Current government fails to establish itself and navigate domestic concerns
Since his ousting, Khan has held numerous protests against the newly formed government, which has gained him momentous traction throughout Pakistan. In fact, Khan announced that if his demands are not met, he would “enter Islamabad with 2 million” supporters in an effort to counter the government. With tensions growing every day, combined with the pressures from substantial economic and environmental issues within the country, millions of Pakistanis are left in a desperate and dire situation. Stability within the government is now of the utmost necessity to ensure proper aid relief and support are provided to the Pakistani people. However, to understand how to ensure political stability, it is important to understand how Pakistan's government has functioned so far.
On August 15, 1947, the Indian Independence Bill was passed, effectively carving out the nations of India and Pakistan after 200 years of British Rule. The two nations separated in order to end the persisting tension between Muslims and Hindus, resulting in their respective sovereign governments. Although Pakistan has tried to maintain a stable government since its independence, its democratically elected leaders have been involved in numerous military coups, dismissals, and disqualifications in serving for office. Instability in Pakistan has been a consistent and ongoing issue, with the current conflict pitting former Prime Minister Imran Khan against the new Pakistani government.
Imran Khan first emerged into Pakistani politics in 1996 and ran relatively unsuccessfully. However, with his message of anti-corruption/ anti-poverty, combined with his growing social media presence, he became a charismatic candidate for the 2018 elections. Eventually, Khan was elected, but his success was not entirely by vote. Before the election, Khan fostered extensive ties with the military of Pakistan, who allegedly helped Khan effectively stage a soft coup and win the election. During his term, Khan went to great lengths to maintain military support, namely by pushing an agenda that would inevitably expand the military and create coalition allies like the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP). In addition, Khan, in a sense, controlled the country’s judiciary system, which supported his own stance on fighting corruption. With so many sectors of the government under his control, Khan was able to consolidate power quickly.
However, this cross-sector support would fall when Khan failed to address national issues and maintain alliances. One of Khan’s key promises when he took office was significant welfare support for the poor. Despite this promise, however, Khan routinely associated with wealthy investors and paid little attention to the state of the country, worsening the already existing economic crisis. In February of 2022, Khan announced a cut in domestic fuel and electricity prices despite rising costs and went as far as to promise a freeze until the end of June. This resulted in one of the country’s worst fiscal deficits and, ultimately, the value of the rupee fell to its lowest point. Soon, inflation hit the country with food and fuel prices rising over 15% from the year prior. Although Pakistan and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) signed an accord for a bailout package, a hold was set on this package as Pakistan, under Khan, had not completely complied with the IMF’s conditions for a bailout.To make matters worse, Khan implemented various subsidies – a contrast to his original stance – which would increase the prices of many essential goods. As the country fell into disarray, Khan would lose a substantial amount of support from both the public and the military. In 2021, Khan’s relationship with Pakistan’s army chief, Qamar Bajwa, began to rupture due to a variety of reasons.
Shortly after the election, the rift between Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chief of the Army Qamar Bajwa expedited the political fall of Khan. Khan’s election victory in 2018 had been attributed to not only popular support but also military backing. But in the years following, Khan lost the support that aided his rise. Reports suggested that Pakistan’s rampant inflation and worsening economic conditions caused the military to end its support for Khan, as the weak financial status of the country was directly undermining the military’s foundations. Furthermore, Khan entered office as a staunch opponent of corruption; however, the anti-corruption measures that he administered were used to imprison opposition political leaders.
However, one of the biggest sources of disagreement between Khan and Bajwa was foreign policy. Imran Khan was explicitly anti-US, stating that a “foreign-funded conspiracy” was out to take down his government. However, General Bajwa sought to hold closer relations with the US. A prime example of their differing opinions is Khan’s and Bajwa’s respective views regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Russia began its invasion, Khan visited Putin in Moscow. However, Bajwa condemned the invasion, stating that the "Russian invasion of Ukraine is a huge tragedy.”
By 2020, opposition leaders of multiple parties came together to create the PDM (Pakistan Democratic Movement), with the goal of removing Khan from power. The PDM is led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), a center-left party with socialist leanings whose power base is located in the southern province of Sindh, and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
On March 8th, 2022, opposition leaders filed a no-confidence motion in Pakistan’s Parliament. However, National Assembly Deputy Qasim Khan Suri dismissed the motion. Opposition leaders reacted negatively to the rejection of the motion, as they stated that they had the support of 177 members to remove Khan from power (only 172 members of the National Assembly are required to remove the Prime Minister from power). Following the rejection, Prime Minister Khan instructed President Arif Alvi to dissolve the National Assembly. On April 3rd, President Alvi dissolved the assembly, using Article 58 of the Pakistan constitution as justification. However, the Pakistan Supreme Court rejected the dissolving of the National Assembly, allowing the assembly to continue its work. On April 10th, the National Assembly proposed a no-confidence motion and received 174 votes, which removed former Prime Minister Khan from office.
With no aid from the military, Khan resorted to alleging that he was ousted by a foreign U.S.-led conspiracy, calling the new government an “imported government.” By doing so, Khan intends to enforce a new election on his own terms, in an effort to retake power. If new elections are not held, Khan promises to fully mobilize his mass of supporters against the government, which he has already done by leading several civilian protests. More notably, Khan’s recent attempts to castigate and threaten government and magistrate officials have resulted in charges of terrorism and unlawful assembly against him. So far, Khan has been given pre-arrest bail and is expected to arrive in court for his trial.
Nevertheless, Khan’s constant rejection of his removal has made it difficult for the new government, led by opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif of PML-N (The Pakistan Muslim League), to find a footing. Due to the ongoing political instability within Pakistan, the PML-N faced many electoral losses in June and judicial failures caused by the Supreme Court in which the the election of Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, an ally of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, to the position of chief minister in Punjab was ordered.
The courts still remain partially sympathetic to Khan, especially his anti-corruption stance. In turn, these actions have undermined the PML-N attempts to consolidate power, especially when they lost the election in the largest province of Pakistan. The PML-N does not control any of the country’s four provinces and relies heavily on coalition partners for its narrow three-seat effective margin of majority in the National Assembly.
Despite the gains made by the PTI, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) discovered that Khan and his party had violated campaign finance rules by “knowingly and willfully” receiving donations from prohibited sources, a finding that could lead to his disqualification from electoral politics. Overall, the political status of Pakistan is on edge and questions have arisen about how the upcoming election in 2023 will go, as Khan claims he will ride his current momentum to establish a victory.
As Khan picks up speed, Prime Minister Sharif’s government is in dire need of any form of support. As such, unlike Khan, the new government has tried to appease international actors like the U.S. The establishment has tried to undercut anti-U.S. conspiracy, as well as actively pursuing outreach with the United States to try to repair the relationship.
The U.S. was welcoming of the approach and hopes to share a “prosperous bilateral relationship.” However, the U.S. must be cautious in its pursuits with Pakistan, as showcasing close relations may upset India, a regional rival of Pakistan. Nevertheless, fostering relations internationally has never been more important for Pakistan, as the country's debt has jumped to a record high of 60 trillion Pakistani Rupee (PKR), and calls for international aid have become more immediate with intense flooding throughout the nation.
Under the new government, Pakistan’s failing economy has put pressure on both civilian and military leaders. Pakistan’s Central Bank reported that its foreign currency reserves are at their lowest level in almost three years (USD 7.83 billion) as a result of increasing debt payments and a lack of external funding. As a result of economic instability, Pakistani’s rupee has lost over 30% of its value since the start of 2022 – making imported goods more expensive and exacerbating inflation in the country. According to Reuters, Pakistan's annual inflation reached 24.9% in July – the highest in 14 years, with imports falling by one-third as well. With consumer prices heightening, Pakistanis are struggling to pay for basic necessities, food, and transport.
In late July, Army Chief Bajwa reached out to the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to seek U.S. assistance for an early release of IMF loans. Pakistan’s government has negotiated with the IMF on a $1.1B loan under the two conditions to reduce user subsidies for fuel and electricity and to boost foreign reserves by securing new funds. Pakistan has taken steps to fulfill such demands – securing about $5B from Saudi Arabia, China, Qatar, and the UAE while withdrawing fuel and power subsidies.
Yet, such actions have led to increased fuel and electricity prices, worsening inflation. To add to Pakistan’s woes, floods have affected 33 million Pakistanis and induced billions in damages. Despite natural disasters, however, Pakistan’s finance minister declared that they will not default on debts, projecting that Pakistan will be able to increase reserves by up to $4 Billion. The IMF has also reaffirmed its commitment to relief and reconstruction efforts to ensure a sustainable and stable Pakistani economy, amid $4 Billion of financing from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
The economic crisis is undoubtedly destabilizing the livelihoods of Pakistanis, who are not only unable to afford basic necessities but are struggling to make ends meet as intense flooding destroys hundreds of villages and agricultural land. Infrastructure has been decimated, with 13.8 million acres of cropland and thousands of miles of roads and infrastructure damaged. With over a third of Pakistan inundated, over 3.6 million acres of crops were destroyed and over 750,000 livestock were killed by the flood. So far, around 1,500 people have died — nearly half of whom are children — and more than 33 million have been displaced from their homes.
Pakistan’s economy remains heavily dependent on the export of cotton, and literacy rates stand at 52 percent – resulting in an unskilled labor force especially vulnerable to extreme economic disturbances. Pakistan is now predicted to lose $12.5 billion as a result of the flood, with inflation projected to reach 30% by the end of the fiscal year. Contrary to Pakistan's finance minister’s more optimistic comments, economists believe that such a downturn is only the tip of the iceberg as climate issues and humanitarian crises may worsen over the coming years
Dealing with Pakistan requires a two-pronged temporal approach; one set of short-term policies being designed to deal with the immediate humanitarian crisis and another set of longer-term policies being designed to create a stable Pakistan. The U.S. and its international allies must pursue both if they want peace and security in the region.
Dealing with the Crisis: Short-Term Goals and Policies
The ongoing floods and inflation crisis in Pakistan are barriers to long-term improvement in the nation’s stability. If the international community seeks a stable Pakistan, then it must rally together to support the country through these crises. The ousting of Imran Khan provides a window of opportunity to replace the regime with a democratically-elected, lasting government that brings prosperity to the nation. A failure to effectively navigate the current humanitarian and economic crises, however, would force the new government into a compromising legitimacy crisis.
The obvious solution is funds-raising, both on the part of direct aid from the U.S. government and from NGOs and student-run organizations within the U.S. An influx of funds would allow both the Pakistani government and Pakistani-based NGOs to subsidize rising crop costs, support food and medicine imports, and deal with the damage to infrastructure caused by the floods.
The U.S. should also use the Pakistani experience as a warrant for broader climate reform, both on the part of governments and private corporations. Rising sea levels threaten to only make these disasters more common, and the world must be prepared to take action to both limits the rate of climate change vis-a-vis carbon emissions and support nations that will be most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Paving a Path Forward: Long-Term Goals and Policies
To promote long-term economic stabilized prosperity, the United States can use its leverage within multilateral lending institutions (i.e., the IMF and World Bank) to wain Pakistan off of its dependencies on predatory Chinese loans that risk exacerbating the current debt crisis while producing lackluster economic growth. Washington could also consider administering bilateral loans to Pakistan which — while a greater burden on the American taxpayer provides the benefits of 1) not having to use political capital within these agencies; 2) increasing the speed of loan offering by side-stepping institution bureaucracy, and 3) builds stronger direct ties between the U.S. and Pakistani governments helps reduce Chinese influence in the country.
Washington — via the institutionalized channel of USAID — should also enhance on-the-ground efforts to promote social cohesion in the country through partnerships with civil society organizations (CSOs). This includes promoting transparency of political organizations within Pakistan and working to promote civil participation on the part of women and undereducated populations. Enhancing political participation instills within the population a conviction that change within the system is possible, thereby reducing the incentive for the revisionist pushes for transformational transformations in governing systems that prevent long-term political and economic stability.
The United States does have a series of legitimate security and economic-based interests in Pakistan that should motivate its willingness to support the nation through the crisis. However, Washington must not be heavy-handed. An overly friendly and/or involved Washington jeopardizes the U.S.-Indian relationships and risks stoking anti-American sentiment that pushes the public to oppose the Sharif government. Assistance is needed, yes, but intervention is not.
The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Lucas Yang, Elizabeth Miller, Nolan Ezzet, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.