This Article is From Apr 14, 2022

Opinion: Imran Khan's Anti-Americanism Masks The Real Issue

Pakistan's institutions began their slow abandonment of democracy almost 70 years ago, when the country's Supreme Court legitimized a coup by the executive and dismissal of the constituent assembly. The judges claimed that a "doctrine of necessity" trumped constitutional norms and democratic values; since then, Pakistan's judges, presidents and army chiefs have all declared this the highest political virtue and used it to justify various undemocratic power grabs.

This week, Pakistan took a step away from that sad heritage. Facing an economic crisis, Prime Minister Imran Khan knew that he had lost his legislative majority and thus his mandate to rule. The Supreme Court was invited to support Khan's increasingly desperate attempts to avoid facing a hostile National Assembly - and, to its credit, refused. Legislators met and, as expected, a unified opposition promptly threw Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement of Justice) party out of office. The National Assembly has  now elected opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif, brother of former three-time premier Nawaz Sharif, as prime minister. 

The opposition may find that victory is a poisoned chalice. Their alliance is unwieldy, cobbled together from two rival political parties that ruled Pakistan alternately before Khan took office in 2018 and a group of Islamists better at winning fights on the streets than seats in parliament. Managing such a clumsy coalition will demand time and attention. Meanwhile, the issues that caused Khan's government to lose popularity, especially double-digit inflation and dwindling foreign exchange reserves, aren't going anywhere. Elections are scheduled for next year, which leaves just enough time for the new government to thoroughly discredit itself.

Plus, in dismissing Khan, the opposition has handed him what he most loves: a sob story. Through a series of rallies and television speeches, Khan has developed the narrative he will take into the next elections - that he alone can protect Pakistan's sovereignty, and that it was his attempts to end corruption and carve out an independent foreign policy that caused his downfall.

And Khan has found his villain: the United States. On Twitter, he described his ouster by elected legislators as "U.S.-backed regime change abetted by local [traitors] to bring into power a coterie of pliable crooks all out on bail." In Pakistan, conspiracy theorizing is a beloved national sport, second only to cricket - and Khan is a master of both. He has spread a ludicrous story about a "letter" from an assistant U.S. Secretary of State that "threatened" Pakistan unless Khan was removed. The White House has said there is no truth to this allegation and it is hard to believe that U.S. President Joe Biden's embattled administration has decided this is the time to conduct "regime change" in a country it would prefer to ignore.

Anti-Americanism is the drug of choice for populists across the world and Khan is no exception. The only element of truth to his story is that his rhetoric may have alienated his most crucial supporters: Pakistan's military establishment. The generals very conspicuously stayed out of this political battle; previously, when Khan was leading street protests against his predecessors, they had equally conspicuously made clear he enjoyed their support.

Thus, in a strange reversal, the leaders of a party that rose to power thanks to its closeness to the army are now railing against a security establishment that failed to keep them in power. Meanwhile, the army has not prevented a new government taking office, although it is led by politicians who have spent decades clashing with the brass over civilian supremacy.

What matters is that this time, perhaps because the military stood aside, Pakistan's institutions worked as they should. A government mismanaged the economy, lost its legislative majority - and was forced by the Supreme Court to face the National Assembly. Yes, the prime minister tried, much like former U.S. President Donald Trump, to keep himself in power in defiance of the constitution. But it didn't work and there was a peaceful transition of power from one civilian administration to another. The "doctrine of necessity" didn't figure at all.

In 1955, Pakistan's Supreme Court opened the door to a series of generals who all imagined themselves as Mustafa Kemal Ataturks - fearless modernizers and defenders of national identity and sovereignty. This time, constitutional institutions had to deal with a civilian leader who imagined himself a statesman less in the mold of Turkey's former leader than its current one, Recep Tayyip Erdogan - the only man able to force Islamist principles onto the state and society while bossing around the generals. Fortunately, Pakistan's institutions didn't give in.

Yet it's no surprise that both countries are now economic basket cases. Just as Erdogan's politics rely on constant confrontations with Europe to distract his citizens from economic disaster, Khan will milk his anti-American conspiracies for all they're worth.

Pakistan should not have to choose only between military and civilian dictatorship. Khan and his party can still redeem themselves. The new government is unlikely to be able to solve Pakistan's problems overnight; Khan will be given all the examples of misrule and bungling he will need to create another successful election campaign. If he is truly committed to Pakistani sovereignty, he should focus on creating a narrative around governance that could win him next year's elections.

(Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and the Business Standard, and he is the author of "Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.")

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