Observer story: ‘A real coming of age moment for democracy’: Notre Dame professor in Pakistan describes political turmoil

Author: The Observer


Allegations of an American conspiracy, the legacy of political dynasties and tensions over the War on Terror all came to a boil last week when Pakistan’s National Assembly removed its prime minister, Imran Khan, through a vote of no confidence.

Khan joins a long list of Pakistani leaders who haven’t finished a full term, but he’s the first to be removed by a vote of no confidence.

Former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, United Kingdom and United Nations Maleeha Lodhi referred to the events as “seven days that shook Pakistan.” 

On Monday, Shehbaz Sharif, the brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was elected. Nawaz Sharif, Khan’s predecessor, was removed in 2017 following revelations about corruption in the Panama Papers and is currently in exile.

Susan Ostermann, assistant professor of global affairs and political science for the Keough School of Global Affairs and a Liu Institute faculty fellow, has been in Pakistan this semester for research. Ostermann is an expert on law and social norms in South Asia, and has watched the turmoil unfold from on the ground in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. She referred to the recent transfer of power as “a real coming of age moment for democracy.”

Ostermann said the political turmoil of the past few weeks has been brewing for longer than the recent skirmishes between political parties. 

“The negotiations that have resulted in a move towards the no confidence motion have been going on for a while. The small number of people who defected from [Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)]  and agreed to be in coalition with the opposition, which is [the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)] and [the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)] and a number of other parties,” Ostermann said.

The PTI, which swept into power in 2018 under the banner of former Pakistan cricket captain and 1992 World Cup victor Khan, built a unique coalition, Ostermann said. 

“[Khan] cobbled together votes from a fairly unusual group of people, in the sense that it was a lot of younger folk, a lot of students, some fairly conservative religious folk, some elites. It’s a very interesting coalition, which worked really well for coming to power but also proved problematic in the end in the sense that this loose coalition did fall apart,” she said.

As the PTI’s coalition fell apart, and a move to remove Khan came clear, Khan alleged that the effort to remove his government was a foreign conspiracy orchestrated by the American government. Khan said he would resign his position and appoint a caretaker government for 90 days until elections would be called.

Ostermann explained that Khan’s conspiracy allegations were used to dismiss the National Assembly and delay the no confidence vote.

“There was a planned no confidence motion on the third of April, and there was quite a lot of political demonstration on the part of both the opposition and PTI in the weeks leading up to that. On the actual day of the no confidence motion, the deputy speaker [of the National Assembly], who’s from the PTI party, and not the speaker, essentially refused to allow the no confidence motion to go forward on the grounds of foreign interference,” Ostermann recalled.

This led to a constitutional crisis where opposition members took their case to the country’s Supreme Court. Ostermann, a self-identified “courts junkie,” went to watch the proceedings for one day of deliberations.

Ultimately, Ostermann said the court ruled in favor of the opposition and ordered that a vote of no confidence had to go forward.

“It was clear to the five-member panel that this was a big deal, and that they needed to hear all of the evidence. They allowed four and a half days of testimony and held extra hours than they normally would during Ramadan. Eventually on Thursday night, after much anticipation, they finally did decide that the deputy speaker’s actions were unconstitutional,” Ostermann said.

The vote went forward minutes before the court’s deadline, and Khan was removed despite four adjournments and other obstacles. Ostermann said that despite the country’s fragile democracy, it is notable that the PTI accepted the court’s mandate even if it did not agree.

“Imran Khan stated that he would abide by whatever the Supreme Court chose, which was a really big deal for Pakistan,” Ostermann said. “The military has taken over many times… and there’s always been this question about how stable the democracy is, because it’s only truly democratic for a short period of time. Alternating power between different parties and not with the military… this was a big deal.”

Many in the country believe Khan’s allegation of American involvement in the crisis, though the State Department has repeatedly denied his claims and Khan has provided little evidence.

Mahan Mirza, Ostermann’s colleague in the Keough School and director of the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion, tweeted before the attempted votes to remove Khan. 

“While it is easy to scapegoat mysterious ‘foreign’ elements when things don’t go your way, @ImranKhanPTI’s allegations are not incredulous,” the tweet read. 

Mirza, originally from Pakistan himself, noted that American reliance on Pakistan through the Cold War and the War on Terror and its historic support of military power within Pakistan provided context.

His tweet continued, “The evidence? History. With #Afghanistan lost, [for the United States,] a ‘neutral’ #Pakistan is unacceptable in the neighborhood of #China, #Iran, & #India.”

Ostermann said given America’s history, she can understand how Khan’s argument might be well received. Despite that, she said she doesn’t currently believe the claims are substantiated.

Based on conversations with sources “fairly high up” in the Department of State, Ostermann said the United States government is not interested at this moment in regime change in Pakistan. Ostermann also noted that the officials are not anti-Khan. 

“They are not in any way anti-Imran Khan, and they have stated that they are not. They would love if the Biden administration paid more attention to South Asia, but all eyes are on Ukraine and Russia. They couldn’t get the Biden administration’s attention on this issue to save their lives,” she explained. 

Ostermann also discussed the military looming over all political events.

“The Pakistani military is incredibly powerful. It has ruled the country intermittently since independence. It is very competent, and that’s one of the reasons why it has been able to sort of take over from time to time. There’s the relief of knowing that somebody is in charge,” she said. “There is the sense as well that within the U.S. government and within the security establishment, that they would actually sort of prefer the military because they”re easier to deal with.”

The military’s refusal to step in and take over during the National Assembly debates or court deliberations is a sign of progress for democracy in the country, Ostermann said.

“The fact that it stood back in this particular case, is a huge change from the past when there might have been this moment of crisis,” she said.

Ostermann said as an outside observer without a team, she’s rooting for democracy in Pakistan, especially when democracy in neighboring India is coming under question.

“One of the things that I have said to my friends here who are Khan supporters and who are upset is this is democracy working. At the very latest, in August of 2023, there will be other elections,” she said. The move to remove Khan “may end up being a strategic miscalculation for the PML and PPP.”