Madiha Afzal on Pakistan’s Current Political Climate

Dr. Madiha Afzal is a fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. She was previously the David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. Her work focuses on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Pakistan’s politics and policy, and U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. Afzal is the author of Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State (Brookings Institution Press, 2018). She was previously an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Umer Lakhani '25 interviewed Dr. Madiha Afzal on on December 7, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Madiha Afzal.

Why was Imran Khan forced out of office through a vote of no confidence in April earlier this year, and what factors brought about his fall from power?

An alliance of opposition parties called the Pakistan Democratic Movement, or PDM, formed about a year and a half before the vote of no confidence in the fall of 2020, with the express purpose of ousting Khan, but it didn't really gain traction until this spring, when Khan seemed to have lost the backing of the Pakistani military which he had previously enjoyed. In March of 2022, when the PDM brought a no confidence motion against Khan, some key allied parties that Khan needed to form his coalition government switched over to the PDM’s side, giving them the votes they needed to oust Khan. The ostensible reason that the PDM gave for bringing the no confidence vote against Khan was the state of the economy, which incidentally is in worse straits now than in the spring of 2022. 

The real reason that Khan lost power was because he had fallen out with the military, and there are a few reasons for that. But the major reason was an impasse between Khan and the military leadership last October over the transfer of the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence, the ISI. There were also cracks in the relationship with the military for a couple of other reasons, such as governance in Punjab, which is Pakistan's largest province, and certain elements of foreign policy, but those weren't the main reason for the fallout with the military - the main reason was the impasse over the appointment of the ISI chief.

What do you think Khan achieved during his time as Prime Minister? What do you think he'll be remembered for?

Khan was in power for three and a half years, coming into office in the summer of 2018, and he was a newcomer to the system. Before him, Pakistan’s civilian governments had basically alternated between the PML-N (the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) and the PPP for much of the last 30 years. As a newcomer to the system, it took him and his government a bit of time to get their bearings. In early 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit, so that was the first major test for Khan's government. He formed a coordination body called the NCOC to deal with the pandemic, and now, if one evaluates how it worked, it worked quite well. Khan chose not to impose a complete lockdown in Pakistan, saying that Pakistan couldn't afford it. This was a decision that was criticized early on. But instead, the government opted for micro lock downs and testing and tracing. And in the end, Pakistan dealt with COVID relatively well, while not completely shutting down the economy, having a lot fewer cases and deaths than, for instance, neighboring India. 

Nothing fundamental really changed in Pakistan's economy under Khan. Part of it was that the majority of his time in power was during this pandemic. That makes both the domestic environment and external environment more difficult for economic change, but Khan didn't really have a plan for structural economic reform. On foreign policy, I would say that things were mixed. There was a bump in the road with Saudi Arabia after an initial visit with MBS, which ended up going quite well. There were ups and downs with the US, starting with a low point in the relationship with Trump to a reset with the Trump administration in 2019, to a cold shoulder under the Biden administration, partly because that time coincided with the Taliban takeover of Kabul.

In terms of politics, Khan is not fond of going to parliament and engaging in political overtures to other parties. That's part of his platform; he essentially has derided Pakistan's other parties for their corruption. But that eventually hurt him; because of the lack of politicking, or the lack of overtures to other parties, he did find himself isolated in the spring of this year. 

None of Pakistan's prime ministers have ever completed a five-year term in office, and Khan joined them in that. There's a lot that has to be dealt with as a Pakistani prime minister, because not only are you managing a tough opposition at all times and the weak mandate that prime ministers tend to have with coalition governments, but you're also managing the military. It was a time essentially spent putting out fires.

In November in Punjab, Khan and at least eight others were injured in a shooting at a political rally. Some have alleged that the assassination attempt was staged. One month later, do we know anything more? What consequences do you think this will have going forward?

A lot is still unclear about the attack on Imran Khan on November 3rd. Although one attacker was apprehended, his motives remain unclear. There was a controversial, hastily shared confession, but nothing really after that. Khan, of course, alleges that there was more than one attacker, and he has blamed very pointedly the government as well as a senior intelligence official for the attack. Of course, the military and the government have both denied those accusations. But in Pakistan, where political violence is sadly common, a lot of this usually tends to stay unresolved. It is unclear that there will ever be a clear investigation into this. One only need look back to former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination in December of 2007, which remains unsolved. There's reason to be skeptical going forward about a clear, impartial investigation taking place.

Now that the Sharif family is back in power, do you foresee them holding power for long? As you said, no Prime Minister has completed a full five-year term. What do you expect, if anything, for the PML to achieve in the near future?

The PML-N has pushed off on Khan's demands for an early election, and they have the backing of the military in doing so. So if they can withstand the political pressure from Khan, they may succeed and not hold elections until they're constitutionally mandated in late summer of next year. The PML-N is interested in pushing off elections as far as possible, because they would like to rebuild some of the political capital that they have lost since coming into power, largely because of the poor state of Pakistan's economy, but also because Khan has gained a lot of political capital and momentum since he was ousted from power. Judging by his rallies that he's held all over Pakistan, judging by results for elections that were held in July in Punjab, and then in various parts of the country in October, Khan's party is, in some ways, poised to win the next general election. At this point, he is the most popular politician in Pakistan. Khan seems to have eaten into some of the PML-N's political base in Punjab. 

Hence, the PML-N is worried about the next election - and the next election is the real prize here. To try to win that next election, they need to fix the economy. Some of that is in their control, and some of that, of course, is dictated by the external environment. Russia's war in Ukraine makes it hard for any economy at this point to do well. But Pakistan in particular is floundering, and things don't seem to be getting better. Inflation is in the double digits. The IMF program seems to be in trouble once again. 

I think they're struggling in terms of narrative. Their politics has now become defined in some ways by an opposition to Khan. They used to claim to be anti-establishment, but as part of coming into power now, they certainly have formed a close relationship with the military and are very much on the same page with the military. So that does away with the anti-establishment narrative altogether. They're very much pro-establishment right now, in a country where that is not very popular. It remains to be seen whether Nawaz Sharif comes back to Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif is the more charismatic of the Sharif brothers – three-time former prime minister - and having him on the ticket will be very different from having Shahbaz Sharif on the ticket. The PML-N is going to try to get some corruption cases against them thrown out so that things are easier for them in the next election.

One place where things have been quite good this year since April is foreign policy. Things have worked relatively well. The relationship with the US is on the mend, and Pakistan just had a breakthrough in terms of what it achieved at the COP 27 summit in Egypt, but all of that is being done by the PPP element of the current coalition government. The foreign ministry is under the PPP, and the climate change ministry is under the PPP. It's unclear whether those benefits will accrue to the PML-N, when, in the next election, the PPP and the PML-N will function as separate parties. It's a tough environment going forward for the PML-N, but they are the incumbents, and they hold the power right now. The biggest chip that they have is the power to decide when to hold the next election, and they are using it to their fullest ability.

On the topic of foreign policy China has invested very heavily in Pakistan, which comes as quite a concern to some observers. Do you think Pakistan is likely to follow in the footsteps of Sri Lanka in terms of its inability to pay back Chinese debt?

Chinese debt is a concern, but I would say no to that. There are two factors at play here. One is how China is approaching outstanding debt with various developing countries in general. The second is a Pakistan-specific factor. The first factor is - if you look at China's overseas loans, almost 60% of China's overseas loans are now held by countries considered to be in financial distress. This is a very different environment from 2010, when only 5% of China's overseas loans were held by countries considered to be in financial distress. Recognizing this, China has started to work with the G-20 and the Paris Club to help some low-income countries renegotiate that. So that is something that China has now shown willingness to do. 

I don’t think China wants any country to quite go the way of Sri Lanka. But with Pakistan specifically, there's a very compelling reason that it wouldn't want it to go that way. Pakistan is far too important to China, as the flagship of the Belt and Road program with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the fact that Pakistan and China have an “all-weather strategic cooperative partnership.” China needs Pakistan strategically and doesn't and won't want it to flounder. So it will do what it can, within its framework of not forgiving loans. 

Pakistan has other friends that are able to help it, Saudi Arabia being one. And Pakistan does also rely on the IMF, which is why the IMF program becomes really important here. But Pakistan does have other places to rely on to make sure that it doesn't go Sri Lanka’s way.

Umer Lakhani CMC '25Student Journalist

Voice of America, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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