With Supreme Court Ruling, Pakistan’s Political Crisis Flares Again
Rescheduled provincial elections mark a win for Imran Khan, but the government seems determined to thwart him.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Pakistan’s Supreme Court rejects an Election Commission decision to delay two provincial elections, China provokes India with a symbolic move along their disputed border, and the World Bank and Asian Development Bank lower India’s economic growth forecast for the year—but it remains a regional bright spot.
Pakistan’s Provincial Elections Crisis
This week, Pakistan’s Supreme Court rejected a decision by the country’s Election Commission to delay elections in two provinces, describing it as unconstitutional. It rescheduled elections in Punjab for May 14; Pakistan’s Constitution stipulates that elections must happen within 90 days after an assembly is dissolved, and Punjab’s legislature was dissolved in January.
However, the government in Islamabad, led by Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, has already signaled it may not respect the Supreme Court ruling. As a result, a decision meant to reinforce the rule of law could instead trigger a new phase in the country’s ongoing political crisis.
The fight over Punjab’s provincial elections is tied to Pakistan’s upcoming national elections, currently scheduled to be held no later than mid-October. Since his ouster nearly a year ago, former Prime Minister Imran Khan has demanded snap elections. The Punjab assembly was controlled by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, and he ordered the legislature dissolved early to put more pressure on Islamabad. National and provincial elections typically happen at the same time in Pakistan.
Khan’s gamble backfired: The government said no to early national polls and attempted to push back the provincial elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. (The Supreme Court ruling didn’t set a new date for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa elections but called for a new petition, which PTI leaders plan to file.) In delaying the elections, the Election Commission cited economic stress and the rising threat of terrorism. Pakistan has previously held national elections amid a terrorism surge, most recently in 2018.
The government’s reaction to the Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday was swift. One senior ruling-party leader decried it as a conspiracy hatched by pro-Khan justices. The governing coalition argues the decision is illegitimate because the verdict was reached by only three judges after six others recused themselves. The day before the ruling, Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari suggested his party wouldn’t accept a decision by a smaller bench, even warning that martial law could be declared if a larger group of judges didn’t issue the ruling.
On Thursday, Pakistan’s National Assembly passed a resolution that rejects the Supreme Court ruling on the provincial elections, urging the prime minister not to accept it.
It’s clear why Islamabad isn’t in a rush to hold elections: Khan’s popularity, which has only grown since his ouster. PTI has performed well in both local elections and public opinion surveys, suggesting it could perform well in national elections. However, Khan’s ability to run is far from assured. Authorities have threatened him with arrest in recent months, and last October the Election Commission disqualified him from running for office for five years based on charges he says are politically motivated. Khan is fighting that decision in the courts.
If the Supreme Court had upheld the Election Commission’s decision to delay provincial elections, the government may have used it as legal pretext to justify delaying national elections as well. That still can’t be ruled out; Islamabad’s rejection of Tuesday’s ruling suggests it won’t necessarily let high court decisions get in the way of its political goals. But for now, the government has a strong interest in remaining vague about the national elections; the uncertainty keeps Khan, his party, and his supporters on edge.
The state is likely to focus on building a stronger case for disqualifying Khan from public office—to hedge against him contesting elections. Khan’s legal team continues to contest his earlier disqualification. In recent weeks, the government has accused Khan of instigating a smear campaign against Pakistan’s army chief and alleged that his party is a group of “miscreants” with links to militancy.
But until the government formally commits to holding national elections as scheduled, Khan and his growing support base will be implacable. Although both Khan and government officials have signaled a willingness to negotiate, political polarization and mistrust run deep in Pakistan. (Khan was targeted in an assassination attempt last November, and he blamed government and security officials—without evidence.)
So the confrontation between Khan and the government rumbles on—a dangerous distraction that sucks up policy space in Pakistan, relegating a severe economic crisis and resurgent terrorist threats to secondary priorities.
What We’re Following
China provokes India over disputed border. In a symbolic provocation, on Sunday the Chinese Civil Affairs Ministry released 11 Chinese names of places—including towns, rivers, and mountain peaks—in the Indian state Arunachal Pradesh near the two countries’ disputed border. Arunachal Pradesh was the site of heavy fighting during the 1962 India-China war, and it remains a tension point. Chinese and Indian troops clashed at the border there as recently as last December.
China’s announcement marks the third time it’s “standardized” names in areas around Arunachal Pradesh since 2017. It clearly represents a non-military tactic to assert its claim to the region. It may also be timed to showcase defiance after a recent report that U.S. intelligence assistance helped Indian soldiers push back the Chinese military incursion late last year. An Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson rejected the Chinese names and described Arunachal Pradesh as an “integral and inalienable part of India.”
In Foreign Policy this week, Happymon Jacob explains why India’s aversion to speaking openly about China’s aggression on the border is not only a military question.
India’s growth forecast lowered. Since bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic, India’s economy has been on a roll, surpassing the United Kingdom’s to become the world’s fifth-largest economy last year. It is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, but this week, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank lowered earlier growth projections for India for the new fiscal year, which began on April 1.
The World Bank cut its GDP forecast to 6.3 percent from 6.6 percent, and the Asian Development Bank slashed its estimate from 7.2 percent to 6.4 percent. To be sure, these adjusted estimates still mean India will see some of the biggest economic growth in South Asia. The two banks cited slower income growth, rising borrowing costs, a global economic slowdown, and higher oil prices as factors in their less optimistic assessments.
Unemployment remains another persistent concern for India. In March, the country’s unemployment rate was 7.8 percent; Haryana and Rajasthan—breadbasket states—registered unemployment rates of 26.8 and 26.4 percent, respectively. Joblessness has sparked violent protests in some parts of India, including last year in Bihar, where unemployment stood at nearly 18 percent last month.
Massive fire strikes Bangladesh. On Tuesday, a huge fire swept through a crowded shopping area in Dhaka, Bangladesh, destroying 5,000 stores. One shopkeeper said he had “never seen such a fire” in his life—a dramatic observation in the country, which has seen hundreds of deaths in fires in recent years due to lax safety standards. An explosion in the capital killed 17 people just last month.
These accidents and the risk they pose to garment industry workers in particular prompted the U.S. government to suspend trade privileges for Bangladesh in 2013. U.S. officials privately say they’ve had encouraging discussions on labor issues with Bangladeshi counterparts. But the latest fire is another reminder of the continued perils facing workers in Bangladesh.
Under the Radar
On Monday, officials in the Indian state of Gujarat confirmed that a family of four who drowned in the St. Lawrence River trying to cross into the United States from Canada was from a village in Mehsana, Gujarat. The officials said the family left for Canada two months ago. The tragedy marks at least the third time in 15 months that Indians—all from Gujarat—have died while attempting to enter the United States.
In January 2022, another family of four froze to death in Canada while trying to enter the United States. Last December, an Indian man fell to death trying to scale a border wall in Tijuana, Mexico. And in March 2022, six Indian men were arrested in the United States after their boat. In a few cases, people were arrested in India for facilitating illegal immigration.
These tragic incidents serve as a reminder of the complexities of Indian immigration to the United States. The Indian diaspora is one of the largest and most affluent in the country. Many Indians come to the United States to study or work, but recent years have seen increases in undocumented immigrants from India. The Migration Policy Institute cites several possible factors in this shift, including a lack of economic opportunities and long delays in the legal immigration process.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• China Has Been Waging a Decades-Long, All-Out Spy War by Calder Walton
• DoD’s Making a List—and Checking It Twice by Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer
• Get Out of Russia by Natalia Antonova
In New Age, development specialist Ferdaus Ara Begum warns that Bangladesh must be prepared to address the impacts on its pharmaceutical sector when the country graduates from the U.N. least-developed countries category. “It is anticipated that prices of medicines will be extensively increased and marginalized people …will be sufferers,” she writes.
An editorial in Kuensel decries Bhutan’s struggles with corporate governance: “Despite numerous reports of poor performance in Bhutan’s corporate sector, the accountability of board members and chief executive directors remains minimal,” it argues.
Scholar Niaz Murtaza, writing in Dawn, describes the institutional dimensions of Pakistan’s political crisis: “Today, the nation is staring into the bottomless pit of a huge abyss as state institutions have become arenas for elite feuds,” he writes.
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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