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Will Imran Khan Survive The Senate Upset?

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. (file photo)
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. (file photo)

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan received a major setback after his ruling party lost an important contest in the indirect election for the Senate or upper house of the country’s parliament.

The routing in the Senate polls on March 3 came on the heels of significant setbacks for Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party when the election commission canceled an important byelection aimed rigging by the ruling party and the country’s top court vetoed the government’s efforts to hold the senate polls under open balloting. Last month the PTI lost several contests in byelections across Pakistan.

The election will increase pressure on Khan, whose government will now be hard-pressed to show that its wafer-thin majority in the federal parliament still holds as it faces a possible march on Islamabad by the Pakistani Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of 11 opposition political parties.

“This is the win of all the political and democratic forces of Pakistan,” Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the leader of opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), told journalists. “We will continue our war against the puppet government and will force this cruel government out of power,” he added at a March 3 press conference after his party’s former prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, defeated Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, Khan’s finance minister.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani.

Gillani’s narrow win -- in which he secured 169 votes against Shaikh’s 164 in the 342-member National Assembly or lower house of the parliament -- prompted the opposition to call on Khan to step down, saying he had lost the confidence of a parliamentary majority.

“This is the first step to send Imran Khan home,” Muhammad Zubair, a leader of the opposition Pakistani Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), said after the vote. “If he has any shame, he should go home.”

Khan’s administration, however, is adamant the PTI still holds a legal mandate and the popular support to continue in office.

“Those talking about a no-confidence vote should be ashamed,” Shibli Faraz, Pakistan’s information minister, said in response to the opposition’s calls. “Imran Khan is the only solution for this country’s problems.”

The PTI was also quick to try to spoil a possible no-confidence vote by the opposition. “Imran Khan will seek the vote of confidence from the parliament,” Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told journalists in a late-night press conference.

The PDM, however, seems energized by the vote. It has already announced plans to march on Islamabad later this month. The March 3 election results show PDM parties could manage to prevent the PTI and allies from achieving a majority in the 100-member Senate, which Khan’s administration desperately needs to push reforms recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) money-laundering watchdog. Shaikh oversees a $6 billion IMF program while Islamabad needs to fulfill FATF’s demands to end its gray listing for economic recovery.

A Pakistan Democratic Movement rally in Bannu, northwest Pakistan on January 6.
A Pakistan Democratic Movement rally in Bannu, northwest Pakistan on January 6.

Observers say the vote is a bellwether for the powerful military’s inclinations. Since its emergence in September, the PDM has accused the military of rigging the July 2018 vote in Khan’s favor. While Khan’s administration rejects the allegations, it repeatedly talks of being on the “same page” as the security establishment. The military says it has no involvement in politics.

“The important thing is that the establishment let this election play out the way political contests unfold,” journalist Sohail Warraich told Geo TV, a private television network.

Author and journalist Raza Ahmad Rumi agrees. “[The vote] basically means Imran Khan’s government, which has a razor-thin majority, is even sharkier,” he told Gandhara. “If the opposition were to bring a vote of no confidence and the establishment remains neutral then Imran Khan’s political fortunes are threatened.”

Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan specialist at the London Chatham House think tank, says the vote is a considerable setback for the economic reform program. Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh will have to vacate his office by early June because Pakistani law requires cabinet members to be elected lawmakers.

“In the long term, that has to be the larger significance of this vote,” she told Gandhara. “If one looks at the larger context -- especially, the establishment seeking some kind of pause in hostilities with India across the Line of Control as a result of the growing economic crisis within the country -- then I can’t see how the establishment would have wanted to get rid of someone like Hafeez Shaikh, who is seen as a safe pair of hands and someone who enjoys the confidence of the IMF.” South Asian archrivals New Delhi and Islamabad announced a cease-fire on February 25 after waging a near war last year.

For now, Pakistanis are focused on the political fallout of the Senate election. Journalist Kamran Khan, widely seen as a supporter of the prime minister, was quick to offer him some radical advice.

“It will be impossible for Khan’s government to weather the tsunami from today’s Senate election,” he tweeted. “What is the benefit of [a] crippled government. Imran Khan should courageously announce the dissolution of the assemblies to see who the people support.”

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.