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A Civilian Coup Subverted in Pakistan

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A Civilian Coup Subverted in Pakistan

The Supreme Court has restored the National Assembly. Prime Minister Imran Khan will have to face a no-confidence vote in Parliament early Saturday.

A Civilian Coup Subverted in Pakistan

Supporters of Pakistani opposition party dance to celebrate following the Supreme Court decision, in Karachi, Pakistan, Thursday, April 7, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Fareed Khan

In Pakistan’s long history of overthrowing prime ministers, never has a premier ousted himself. In nearly 75 years, many governments have seen abrupt ends but never has a premier dissolved his own assembly and sought snap polls in the manner that Prime Minister Imran Khan has in recent days.

Khan’s trump card faltered, however, when a five-member bench of the Supreme Court declared his government’s actions “contrary to the Constitution and law, and of no legal effect,” thereby restoring the National Assembly, and much to Khan’s dismay, reinstating him as the prime minister of Pakistan.

This country is no stranger to military coups: it has remained under military dictatorships for over three decades. But last Sunday saw Imran Khan attempt a civilian coup. To subvert the humiliation of losing power through the opposition’s no-confidence motion, Khan plunged the country into a political and constitutional crisis instead.

The April 3 National Assembly session began with Law Minister Fawad Chaudhry alleging a foreign conspiracy to oust the prime minister and questioning the opposition’s loyalty to the Pakistani state under Article 5a of the Constitution.

As soon as he finished, Deputy Speaker Qasim Khan Suri, reading from a note, announced his shocking decision to reject the no-confidence resolution and prorogued the session without a debate.

Moments later, Khan appeared on television screens and informed the nation that he had advised President Arif Alvi to dissolve the lower house of Parliament as well as to call early elections. The President’s notification arrived soon after.

Meanwhile, Khan congratulated the nation for thwarting a “foreign conspiracy” to dismantle his government.

This unprecedented turn of events made the country’s supreme judicial body convene court on its day off. The top court judges assembled at the residence of Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial before heading to the Supreme Court building and initiating a suo motu notice – an inquisitorial proceeding where the apex court frames a question of public importance and seeks assistance from the attorney general and legal experts.

That the Khan government’s actions were contrary to the Constitution was undeniable. But the court had to deliberate whether it had the jurisdiction to intervene in the parliamentary process as Article 69 offers speakers’ rulings cover against court review.

Luckily, there was a precedent.

The apex court had faced a similar dilemma in 2017 and ruled that speakers’ rulings can be justifiable if the decision was legally or factually incorrect.

It is befitting, perhaps, that the decision had come on a petition filed by Khan.

In the four days that the top court heard arguments from both sides, the country was on autopilot with the government and opposition failing to agree on a caretaker setup. The economy remained virtually suspended; the stock market plunged, and the Pakistani rupee dropped to a historic low against the U.S. dollar.

In the courtroom, it appeared that the attorney general and the legal teams of Khan and of the parliamentary speakers based their arguments on challenging the court’s jurisdiction to intervene in the parliamentary process. When questioned, the attorney general refused to defend the speakers’ ruling.

Outside the courtroom, a legal debate on constitutional crisis triggered a debate with suppositions that in invoking Article 5a, which deals with loyalty to the state, the government had violated Article 5b, which deals with loyalty to the Constitution.

Alvi’s move to dissolve the assembly on Khan’s advice under Article 48(i) and Article 58(i) also rested on flimsy grounds. The explanation to Article 58(i), added in the 8th Amendment, takes away the power of a prime minister to advise the president to dissolve the assembly when a no-confidence motion has been filed against him.

Despite the glaring contradictions, there was uncertainty. This inconclusiveness was rooted in Article 69(ii) which protected Suri’s ruling against court review and thereby the subsequent dissolution of the assembly.

After four long days, the Supreme Court announced on April 7 a landmark verdict setting aside the deputy speaker’s ruling to dismiss the no-confidence motion against the prime minister and the subsequent dissolution of the National Assembly on the advice of the prime minister to the president.

In its short order, the apex court has directed reconvening of the National Assembly no later than Saturday at 10:30 a.m., adding that the session cannot be prorogued without the conclusion of the no-confidence motion against Khan.

After a week of dramatic turns and speculations, Pakistan’s political arena is back to where it was, with the same question: Will Khan become the first prime minister to get ousted by a no-confidence motion? Or will he play his last trump card of mass resignations and take the fight out of Parliament and onto the streets?