Pakistan’s Political Crisis Deepens
As Imran Khan plans another march on the capital, new developments have put the public on edge.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan plans another march on the capital amid growing political uncertainty, Bangladesh prepares to build an underground metro system in Dhaka, and Colombo explores bringing Disneyland to Sri Lanka.
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Uncertainty Puts Pakistan’s Public on Edge
Since April, when then-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted in a parliamentary no-confidence vote, Islamabad’s political environment has been supercharged. Khan has repeatedly accused the new government’s leaders of colluding with the Pakistan Army and the United States to remove him. He has organized large political rallies demanding that the government step down; it has responded with crackdowns on Khan and his supporters.
Last Friday, Pakistan’s Election Commission disqualified Khan from politics after finding him guilty of “corrupt practices” because he allegedly failed to disclose that he sold gifts from foreign dignitaries. Two days later, Arshad Sharif, one of Pakistan’s most prominent journalists, was killed in Nairobi. These developments not only threaten to intensify Pakistan’s political polarization, but they also increase the uncertainty swirling around its immediate political future.
Khan has dismissed the latest decision as one more politically motivated tactic to sideline him, and there is some confusion about the length of his disqualification from politics. An Islamabad High Court judge suggested the ruling only covers the present parliamentary term, which ends next fall. But since the full text of the ruling has not been released, there is no clear answer. If the disqualification extends past next year, Khan would be ineligible to run in Pakistan’s next national elections.
Against this volatile backdrop, the news of Sharif’s killing stunned the nation. Like many top Pakistani journalists, Sharif had explicit political leanings: He was closely aligned with Khan. He had supported the military until Khan’s ouster, and he lost his job at ARY News in August seemingly for criticizing the military on social media. Sharif was served with an arrest warrant for sedition and fled the country.
Many Pakistanis—on social media, in press interviews, and in private conversations—suspect that the country’s security establishment orchestrated Sharif’s killing, and there is strong evidence that it has ordered the assassination of journalists before. The circumstances of Sharif’s death remain unclear: Kenyan authorities say local police shot him in a case of mistaken identity, while Kenyan journalists say there is more to the story.
Either way, the public suspicion of state sponsorship is very real, and many citizens—led by Khan’s large and growing support base—have seen their trust in security institutions decrease in recent months. Speaking on Tuesday, Khan described the tragedy as a targeted killing. Islamabad has announced that two top Pakistani security officials will carry out an investigation in Kenya. Until it’s completed—and it’s unclear if Kenyan officials will cooperate and how credible it will be—many questions will remain unanswered.
Meanwhile, Khan also announced Tuesday that he will launch a long march from Lahore to Islamabad on Friday demanding early elections; it will arrive in the capital on Nov. 4. The government has repeatedly rejected his demand for elections. This makes sense: Right now, the current government would likely lose elections. Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, has performed well in recent by-elections, and he has consistently drawn huge crowds to his rallies. Khan had previously put off declaring a date for the march and called on his supporters not to take to the streets to protest his disqualification, suggesting some type of backroom negotiations.
With the date set, the focus turns to how Pakistan’s government will respond when and if the march reaches Islamabad. Khan called off an earlier march in the capital after security forces cracked down on protesters. It’s unclear if he would again back down or order his supporters to stay in the streets.
In an extraordinary press conference on Thursday, Pakistan’s army spokesperson and spy chief both denied many of Khan’s allegations about the military and the U.S. government colluding in his ouster. This rare public dressing down suggests that the government won’t take a soft line when Khan arrives in Islamabad next week.
Looming over everything is the issue of who will be Pakistan’s next army chief—arguably the country’s most powerful political post. Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa’s term ends next month, and he says he won’t seek another term. The government has kept a tight hold on who will replace him, with few indications of the possibilities. The government is intent on undermining Khan, so it’s unlikely that the next army chief will be a Khan ally—ruling out Faiz Hameed, a former spy chief once considered a possible successor.
All this uncertainty puts the Pakistani public on edge. Political instability risks adverse reactions from the stock market. Citizens are already grappling with high inflation and increasing terrorist attacks—not to mention the millions of flood victims who remain desperate for assistance. But it seems the crisis has no end in sight.
What We’re Following
Dhaka’s first underground metro. Last Sunday, Dhaka’s mass transit service reached an agreement with a consortium led by Japan’s Nippon Koei to build the Bangladeshi capital’s first underground metro rail system. The project, which would link the international airport to the rest of the city, is expected to be completed by 2026 It would make Bangladesh one of a few South Asian countries with an underground metro service. (New Delhi already has a state-of-the-art system.)
Bangladesh has recently been on a large infrastructure spree. In June, it inaugurated the Padma Bridge, the longest in the country at 3.8 miles, and a Chinese-financed underwater tunnel in the Port of Chittagong—the first of its kind in South Asia—is expected to open to traffic in December.
Indians mark Diwali. On Monday, India marked the national holiday of Diwali, which is widely celebrated by Hindus around the world. Diwali symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and, in India, features impressive arrays of light shows. These displays are dazzling, although they often contribute to poor air quality—with smoke from fireworks mixing with smoke from Indian farmers’ burning of surplus wheat supplies, which tends to happen around the same time.
This year, however, the smog was notably less present on Tuesday morning in New Delhi. Experts attribute this to strong winds that dispersed air pollutants. Additionally, farmers in northern India have held off on their crop-burning because of a long monsoon season.
Britain’s new prime minister. Rishi Sunak, who became Britain’s prime minister on Tuesday after the resignation of Liz Truss, has received extensive attention in India and Pakistan. Sunak, a devout Hindu, is the country’s first prime minister of South Asian origin. And he can arguably point to roots in both India and Pakistan—his grandparents were from British India, but they were born in Gujranwala, in present-day Pakistan.
The Economist’s Shashank Joshi notes that Sunak is one of the few leaders of a G-7 or NATO country who is of South Asian origin. Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa, whose father is of Goan descent, is another.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• What the Hell Just Happened to Hu Jintao? by James Palmer
• Iran Is Now at War With Ukraine by John Hardie and Behnam Ben Taleblu
• Russia’s Ukraine Disaster Exposes China’s Military Weakness by Tai Ming Cheung
Under the Radar
Disneyland may be coming to Sri Lanka. The country’s state minister for tourism, Diana Gamage, recently confirmed that she is in talks with Disney officials about opening a park in Sri Lanka, with the next round set to begin early next month. If it goes forward, it would be the first Disneyland in South Asia. Interestingly, Gamage indicated that Hambantota—the southern town that houses a port currently leased to China—is under consideration as one of the possible sites for a theme park. There has been no reaction from Beijing.
Bringing the Magic Kingdom to Sri Lanka would be a major coup, as it could boost tourism, which previously contributed more than 12 percent of the country’s GDP but has flagged in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is one reason why Sri Lanka’s economy has suffered such major shocks in recent months. However, with travel restrictions removed, Sri Lanka could be poised for a resurgence in tourism—especially if it gets a Disney theme park.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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