Briefing

A brief history of Pakistan's recent political turmoil

An ousted prime minister and a meddling army — what could go wrong?

Pakistan recently ousted former Prime Minister Imran Khan, a vocal critic of the military who holds onto the hope of staging a political comeback in 2023. The nation's new army chief claims the military won't meddle in the upcoming elections, but experts have their doubts. Here's everything you need to know:

What's going on with Imran Khan?

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted in April 2022 after unsuccessfully attempting to blockno-confidence vote in his leadership. Khan's increasingly fractured relationship with the military is considered to have been a major contributing factor to his political downfall, the BBC reports.

Following his removal from office, Khan took to hosting political rallies across the country, baselessly claiming that opposition parties were in cahoots with foreign governments, including the U.S., in an effort to remove him from power. At a rally in early November, a gunman shot Khan in the leg in what authorities say was an assassination attempt, reports CNN. The attack sparked a number of protests across the country in support of Khan.

Khan blamed the assassination attempt on the military and further denounced the army's substantial role in Pakistani politics. Former Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa has claimed that the "army decided not to meddle in any political affairs" going forward, despite experts saying the opposite appears to be true. Khan has also accused Bajwa of being the reason he was ousted from government, an allegation the general has denied.

Bajwa retired at the end of November, allowing for a new army chief to ascend. 

Who is the new army chief?

Pakistan named Lt. Gen. Asim Munir, one of six candidates who were in the running, to be Bajwa's successor. The Pakistani army has historically wielded substantial political influence and many consider the army chief to be the most powerful position in the country, The Wall Street Journal reports. In the past, the military has admitted to interfering in the country's politics unlawfully but has vowed to stop doing so. It is widely acknowledged that the military helped Khan rise to power initially, as well.

Munir previously served as head of the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency in 2018, but only lasted eight months before Khan removed him without giving an explanation. Some officials have said that Munir's removal was due to differences in opinions on foreign policy, as well as personal conflicts. Khan has claimed that the current Pakistani leadership, headed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, should not have been allowed to appoint Munir due to their alleged corruption.

Munir assumes his position during a time of great tensions for Pakistan, both domestic and foreign. Pakistan is situated between two rival nations, India and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The country also faces internal conflict with the Pakistani Taliban, who are allied with the Afghanistan Taliban and were against Islamabad siding with the U.S. in the War on Terror, reports The Associated Press. Pakistan also continues to experience record-high inflation and is still recovering from devastating floods that took place in August. 

What's next for Pakistan?

Pakistan's elections are set to take place in 2023, though Khan has advocated for them to happen sooner in hopes of staging a political comeback. He also at one point planned to march on the capital in protest to call for a snap election, claiming he was wrongly ousted. 

Khan reversed his decision in his first rally since the assassination attempt, saying, "I don't want there to be anarchy in the country. I don't want to cause any harm to this country." He has agreed to let the election play out as normal while still holding strong in his allegations against the military and the current government. Over the past few months, Khan's party has won a surprising number of government seats including in opposition strongholds, per The Washington Post. He hopes to move up in the polls ahead of next year's election.

The more pressing question is whether the Pakistani military leadership will hold to Bajwa's claim that it will remain neutral in the election. Despite his words, analysts found that the military actually became more involved in politics under Bajwa's leadership. "[The army] will need time to restore the public trust, but it will also be under immediate pressure to ease political instability and reduce tensions between the government and Khan," explains Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center in Washington. 

Many nevertheless see the new leadership in Pakistan as a glimmer of hope. "It's a great opportunity for the next chief to really transform the very character of the military," said Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain, "But that may be wishful thinking."

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