Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan spent much of his election campaign in 2018 denying he was a military stooge. Yet after suffering a shocking loss in parliament this week, he turned to the nation’s powerful army chief.
Khan met General Qamar Javed Bajwa along with the head of the military’s spy agency on Thursday after his finance minister lost a vote in the National Assembly, or lower house, during an election for the Senate. That defeat prompted Khan to seek a confidence vote on Saturday to prove he still commands a majority to govern.
The conversation with the head of the army sent a strong signal to lawmakers: The institution has ruled Pakistan for about half of its existence since independence in 1947 and retains tremendous sway over policy. “It gives a wrong message,” opposition leader Maryam Nawaz said at a briefing on Thursday.
For the army, Khan represents stability as the economy recovers from the pandemic-induced contraction. Last month, Pakistan reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to resume a $6 billion bailout program to help shore up the nation’s finances.
Bajwa also wants to make a good impression with U.S. President Joe Biden, who has urged allies to uphold democracy and led international criticism of a Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar. Khan has exerted influence in peace talks with neighboring Afghanistan as U.S. troops prepare to depart, meeting with delegations that have included Taliban militants.
The federal government’s spokesman and the army had no immediate comment.
“Bajwa is keen to maintain continuity and show that all is well,” said Burzine Waghmar, a member of the Centre for the Study of Pakistan at SOAS University of London. The army is also “keen to start on a good footing with the Biden administration.”
Khan needs the support of 172 lawmakers in the 342-member National Assembly to win the confidence vote, which unlike the Senate election will be conducted through an open ballot. Although his Tehreek-e-Insaf party and its allies control 178 seats, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh only won 164 votes in the lower house on Wednesday in the secret Senate vote.
In a national address Thursday, Khan alleged that 15 or 16 of his lawmakers were bribed to vote against the party-backed candidate. He cited a video of lawmakers stuffing bags with currency, though didn’t provide direct evidence.
To ensure Khan retains the support of his bloc of lawmakers, Pakistan’s spy agency has been asked to monitor their movements and ensure they vote in parliament on Saturday, according to officials with knowledge of the situation. They asked not to be identified speaking to the media.
“No party can remain in power without institutional support from the army,” said Amit Ranjan, a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.
The army already has an outsized role in Khan’s administration, with a say on everything from foreign policy and security matters to economic decisions. Generals have been known to hold private meetings with business people and policymakers.
Meanwhile, former and current military officials are in prominent government-backed roles, such as running the state-owned airline and Khan’s low-cost housing program.
“The idea that the establishment is completely neutral seems a bit far-fetched,” said Niaz Murtaza, executive director at the Islamabad-based research group Inspiring Pakistan, referring to the military. The army is “still backing the government and they’ll continue to do so at the moment.”