Premiers, politics and PKR — 75-year-old Pakistan shocked in 2022 with number of firsts

Compiling a list of national developments in 2022 would have been a painstaking exercise.
Published December 29, 2022

The year 2022 saw Pakistan celebrate its diamond jubilee. But even at 75 years of age, the country experienced a handful of firsts this year.

The fact remains that this year has been unlike any other in recent history. We feel comfortable in making this statement because that is the general feeling in our newsroom.

Politically, this year was more like a Michael Bay thriller, non-stop action 24/7, and with enough drama to rival any reality show currently airing on Netflix.

So instead of doing a roundup of the most significant national developments — which would have been a painstaking exercise considering the sheer amount of developments that took place — here’s a list of firsts Pakistan witnessed.

Imran Khan’s annus horribilis

A premier facing a no-confidence vote in parliament is not unheard of in Pakistan’s 75 years of existence. Benazir Bhutto and Shaukat Aziz survived no-confidence motions in 1989 and 2006, respectively.

PTI Chairman Imran Khan, however, was the first prime minister to be booted from power through a no-trust vote.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The Pakistan Democratic Movement, formed in September 2020 and consisting of a menagerie of politicians, had been vocal in its disdain for the PTI government since the latter took over in August 2018.

However, in February, the alliance upped the ante and made the formal declaration of filing a no-confidence motion against then-premier Imran which was subsequently submitted in the National Assembly Secretariat on March 8.

The PTI government appeared unfazed at the time, believing it would come out on top. However, the cracks soon started appearing in its carefully constructed two-thirds majority in parliament: One after the other, the PTI’s allies started abandoning ship in spectacular fashion.

The Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) turned its back on the PTI government in June 2020. This year, the Balochistan Awami Party and the Jamhoori Watan Party crossed over to the opposition, followed by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) days later, virtually costing the PTI its majority in the 342-strong National Assembly.

But the death knell sounded when it emerged that 20 PTI MNAs, who were at one point camped out at Islamabad’s Sindh House, had joined the opposition ranks, including members of the so-called Jahangir Tareen group.

The PTI accused the opposition of buying the loyalties of its lawmakers, but more importantly, it also cited a “foreign conspiracy” behind the campaign to oust its government (remember this for later).

After days of politicking and some delays, the no-confidence motion was set to be voted on April 3. The opposition, anticipating PTI’s delaying tactics, had also filed a motion against the then-NA speaker Asad Qaiser, leaving the deputy speaker, Qasim Suri to preside over the session.

On April 3, the newsroom was buzzing with activity. We expected a fiery session following weeks of intense politicking, with all of our resources dedicated to covering the fate of Imran’s government. But even we weren’t prepared for the hand that the cricketer-turned-politician was about to play.

Fawad Chaudhry, who had just taken the additional charge of the law ministry a day prior, on the floor of the NA said that loyalty to the state was the basic duty of every citizen under Article 5(1) of the Constitution, reiterating Imran’s claims that a foreign conspiracy was behind the move to oust the government.

Following the brief speech, Suri termed the points raised by Fawad to be “valid” and dismissed the no-confidence motion, proroguing the session which lasted barely ten minutes.

The opposition roared as headlines were updated and as TV channels scrambled to get analysts on the line to debate the constitutionality of Suri’s move.

But then the PTI struck again. Moments after the NA session was prorogued and as the opposition was protesting, Imran appeared on TV to announce he had advised the president to dissolve the NA under Article 58, asking the nation to prepare for fresh elections.

Game, set, match. Or so Imran thought.

All eyes turned towards the Supreme Court of Pakistan which took suo motu notice of Suri’s ruling, criticised across the board for violating the Constitution. The apex court conducted five days of marathon hearings, before determining that Suri had done goofed.

On April 7, the Supreme Court restored the National Assembly, directing it to reconvene two days later in order to take up the no-confidence motion afresh.

Take two of the no-trust vote was gruelling.

The April 9 session began around 10:30am and went on past midnight. As Dawn correspondents Amir Wasim and Syed Irfan Raza put it, “it was a tiring and nerve-wracking day as the government tested the patience of opposition members”.

The session was adjourned at least four times as opposition leaders held talks with the government. By the end of the day, the PTI government’s hopes of surviving the no-trust vote dimmed as the sun set on the country’s capital. All the while, Imran chose to spend the day at the Prime Minister House.

Minutes before the clock struck midnight, signalling the end of the court’s deadline for voting on the motion, the NA speaker at the time, Asad Qaiser, resigned from his post, saying he could not take part in a foreign conspiracy to oust the premier.

PML-N’s Ayaz Sadiq then donned the speaker’s robes and conducted the session as members of the treasury, save Ali Muhammad Khan, walked out of the lower house of parliament. Finally, an hour past midnight on April 10, the no-trust motion against Imran succeeded with 174 members in the 342-strong house voting in favour of the resolution.

As the proceedings against him had commenced, Imran, according to Faisal Javed Khan, had walked out of the Prime Minister House “gracefully” and without bowing down.

In the days that followed, there was some speculation regarding the activities at the PM House. However, they were swiftly dismissed as “a pack of lies”.

While not the worst thing to have happened to Imran this year — there was an attempt on his life in November — the success of the no-confidence motion, a first in Pakistan’s history, was by-far the most significant development of the year.

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The Year of the Tiger

Exit Imran. Enter Shehbaz.

According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2022 was the Year of the Tiger, which in the grand scheme of things makes sense as PML-N’s Shehbaz Sharif and his plethora of safari suits finally got their time in the limelight after he was sworn in as the 23rd prime minister of the country in April.

No stranger to holding government office, Shehbaz had served as the Punjab chief executive on three separate occasions; the province’s Metro Bus projects are frequently touted as his biggest achievements.

However, Shehbaz’s first run as premier has been somewhat overshadowed by his older brother, three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who has been in London since November 2019.

PM Shehbaz has made at least three trips to the United Kingdom to visit his brother as the country grappled with political and economic woes for “consultations”. Reportedly, the appointment of the new army chief had also come under discussion during one such trip in November.

In addition to these trips, PM Shehbaz also travelled to friendly countries, including China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to secure much-needed investment and foreign exchange for the country.

2022 did not see PM Shehbaz have any standout moments, but he still has a few more months — at least that’s what the government is hoping — before the next general elections are to take place.

Pakistan faced crises on several fronts in 2022 such as our persistent economic woes, devastating flooding and the worrying resurgence in terrorism. Perhaps we would have liked to see more from our premier, and less of Maryam Nawaz telling ministers to “look into this” on Twitter.

A smaller but equally important first this year was PPP Chairman Bilawal-Bhutto Zardari assuming charge as foreign minister, the first public office of his political career.

While no memorable moments stand out about PM Shehbaz, FM Bilawal certainly showed that he can hold his own despite having no prior experience. In December, he responded forcefully to Indian terror allegations, prompting uproar in the neighbouring country.

The (PMO) walls have ears

You would think, considering the gravity of conversations being had, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) would be impregnable.

You would be mistaken.

Audio/video leaks are not new to Pakistani politics. There have been some that are so beyond the pale that their existence shouldn’t even be acknowledged.

But this time round, and for the first time round, a plumbing problem arose at the PMO. In a series of events straight out of a spy novel, audios began popping up on social media in September, purportedly featuring key former and current government figures.

It started with PM Shehbaz allegedly saying to a government official that Maryam Nawaz had asked him to facilitate her son-in-law Raheel with the import of machinery for a power plant from India. Then, the leaks featured a conversation between Maryam and Shehbaz discussing former finmin Miftah Ismail; the former had made no secret of her disdain for Miftah’s decisions to stabilise the economy.

All the while, rumours were abundant, claiming that a hacker had put over 8GB of recorded conversations from the PMO up for sale on the dark web.

The premier termed the incident to be a “serious lapse” as he attempted to explain the contents of the audios.

At the same time, audio leaks also started surfacing of the previous government. In one of the clips, PTI chief Imran and his former principal secretary, Azam Khan, allegedly discuss the cipher that the former has presented as evidence of a foreign plot to oust him from the top office.

In another, a voice believed to be of Imran discusses the cipher with party leaders, telling them to “play it up”. In yet another, Imran — who has been vociferous in his condemnation of horse-trading — allegedly talked about buying the loyalties of presumably five lawmakers.

The PTI chief claimed the PML-N was behind a “new game of fake audios” and asked the country’s “neutrals” — the term he coined this year for the military establishment — who was truly responsible as the government proclaimed that Imran’s foreign conspiracy narrative had been laid bare.

At one point, PML-N’s Maryam also claimed that Imran and his “coach” were responsible for the audio leaks.

Amid the political rhetoric, the National Security Committee on September 28 — the highest forum for coordination on security issues — constituted a body to investigate the leaks, besides agreeing on putting in place a “legal framework” pertaining to cyber security. A separate committee, comprising federal ministers and heads of intelligence agencies, was also constituted to oversee the investigation into the leaks.

Strangely enough, the perpetrators of the incident were never exposed and it was brushed under the rug like a bad nightmare.

In October, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said on a TV show that the issue had been resolved, claiming that no “hostile intelligence agency” was involved.

“Some staff members of the PM’s House have been identified […] such things are done for money,” were the minister’s exact words. He went on to say that a “tiny” recording device was regularly planted to record telephonic conversations and informal chats at the PM’s Office.

At the very least the government made an effort to “debug” the PM House and Office. We hope that the plumbing issue stands resolved.

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Breaking the silence

On a fairly mundane Thursday in October, the military decided it had had enough of Imran’s vitriol; the former premier had been scathing in his criticism of the military following his ouster.

In an unprecedented move, the chief of the country’s premier spy agency appeared alongside former Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) director general Lt Gen Babar Iftikhar at a press conference.

The presser began as any usual briefing by Gen Iftikhar, as rare and few as those are. However, the temperature in the (news)room went up by a few degrees when, in yet another first in our 75-year history, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief joined the military spokesperson.

Whether or not there was a need for the military to say anything at all is up for debate. But Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum, dressed in a dark suit and a purple tie, minced no words as he laid into Imran for his anti-army statements. Gen Anjum said malignment of the institution and his agency had prompted him to break his proverbial silence.

“I am here because my institution [army] and agency [ISI] are being maligned through lies. I could not have remained silent anymore, especially when there is a threat of discord because of one-sided lies,” Gen Anjum said at the presser.

In addition, Gen Anjum also made several startling allegations, claiming that Imran — whose party was believed to have enjoyed the military’s support while in power — had offered ex-army chief retired General Qamar Javed Bajwa an indefinite extension in exchange for his support during his last days in office.

He also revealed that the army had decided to enter backchannel talks with the PTI to reduce “toxicity”, restore stability and end volatility in the political environment but added that those negotiations remained inconclusive.

It is safe to say, it was the final nail of the coffin that was Imran’s relationship with the military. As one editorial in Dawn said: “The army’s darling has now become its bête noire.”

Imran, never one to stay quiet, termed the entire exercise by the ISI chief to be a “political” presser. His party also said that the talks with the establishment were aimed at holding free and fair elections to bring political stability.

Quoting from the same Dawn editorial mentioned earlier, “Due to the manner in which the establishment repeatedly interfered in political and civilian affairs over decades, the civil-military schism we see today was bound to happen.”

In his farewell address, ex-army chief Bajwa admitted to the army’s interference in the country’s domestic politics but said that it would now distance itself, a decision that was thoroughly debated upon by the institution.

Only time well tell whether or not this is implemented.

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Rupee woes and new lows

In the last stretch of his incomplete term as the prime minister, Imran had announced a petrol subsidy and freeze on power tariff — moves that were labelled as “landmines” by his opponents. That shrewd generosity by the outgoing premier put an enormous burden on an already rickety economy and floundering rupee, both of which became the incoming PDM government’s headaches to deal with.

Once in the driving seat, the PDM — which had assailed its predecessor for its failure to curb inflation — in May imposed a ban on the import of luxury and non-essential items in an effort to save foreign exchange.

The decision had come as the local currency went into a state of freefall and shattered all previous records to fall to 200 against the dollar. Analysts at the time had termed it to be the “blackest day” in the history of Pakistan, while newsrooms were forced to give the most prominent slots to exchange rate stories.

In July, the exchange rate fell by Rs11 over the span of a mere two days with the central bank attributing the decline to the “market-determined exchange rate system”.

In the background, Miftah Ismail spent a good chunk of the year wrangling with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the revival of Pakistan’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF) programme in an effort to bring back stability to the financial market.

In July, he claimed that the pressure on the rupee would vanish soon as he defended his policy of import curtailment to reduce the dollar outflow. But by July 28, the rupee had reached a record low of 239.94 per dollar on July 28 — probably the most concerning first for Pakistan this year.

However, Miftah and his philosophy was swapped for the polar opposite approach of Ishaq Dar, who unlike his predecessor had strongly favoured intervention in currency markets in three previous stints in the job. The ‘finance wizard’ vowed to strengthen the rupee, saying that he would not allow market manipulation of the exchange rate.

But the rupee has still not slipped under 200 owing to the spike in inflation and Pakistan’s persistent monetary and fiscal problems. In August, inflation measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) shot up to 27.26 per cent year-on-year, the highest in 49 years. In December, the country’s foreign exchange reserves plunged by $584 million to reach $6.1 billion, the lowest since April 2014.

The issues are vast, require long-term planning and reforms, and cannot be resolved without burning through whatever is left of the PDM’s“political capital“. If we must end the year with a wish, then let us hope that the rupee recovers from the ills that plagued it in 2022.

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Header illustration by Mushba Said