A brief history of regime changes in Pakistan

Imran Khan’s term lasted for just over three and a half years before he was ousted through a No Trust Motion, moved by the combined opposition parties under the banner of PDM. For the first two years, IK had to negotiate the pandemic Covid-19 crisis that had rocked the world. By the time Covid-19 was brought under control, his policies won kudos both at the domestic and international forums.

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Pakistan gained independence on August 14, 1947, and for the next nine years, the civilian set up ran the country under a parliamentary form of government. President Iskander Mirza, a retired Major General of the Pakistan Army declared Martial Law abrogating the freshly framed constitution in 1956, and in 1958, he himself was deposed by General Ayub Khan, the C-in-C Pak Army. The dissolution of the civilian setup was justified on account of their incompetence and corrupt practices. That compared to the present lot of legislators they were veritable saints is another story.  Since that fateful day, Pak Army has been directly or indirectly involved in running the country.

Ayub Khan held power until he was forced to abdicate by Yahya Khan, another C-in-C of the Pak Army. Yahya had to step down following the fall of Dhaka in December 1971. Finally, after a gap of nearly a decade and a half, a civilian government headed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto assumed power. Bhutto ruled through an iron hand and appointed General Tikka Khan as the Army Chief under a new designation, Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). General Tikka Khan confined the army to its constitutional role during his tenure as the COAS.

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Understanding the matter better

Bhutto was popular among the masses but the disastrous nationalization of key industries and commercial banks had hurt the economy, denting his popularity, particularly among the powerful civilian and military elites. His arrogance and military actions in Balochistan further eroded his local support and the final nail in his coffin was the nuclear weapons program that he had launched following the Indian nuclear explosion in 1974. It earned the wrath of the US administration. Eventually, Bhutto was overthrown by his own handpicked COAS, General Zia ul Haq in 1977 and hanged in 1979. The country again came under Martial Law.

Despite Bhutto’s genuine appeal particularly among the poor, there was no serious public outcry on his removal and subsequent hanging. The protests by his diehard fans were easily subdued through severe punishments meted out to the dissenters by the powerful military courts. Zia continued to rule directly until 1985 and then through a quasi-civilian non-party-based parliamentary setup, until his demise in an air crash in 1988. Fresh elections were held soon afterward and the country reverted to civilian rule.

PPP led by Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and PML (N) under Nawaz Sharif alternately assumed power from 1988 to 1999 under the watchful eyes of the powerful military. Their survival largely depended on their ability to stay on the right side of the top Army brass, headed by the COAS.

Benazir was removed on charges of corruption through a presidential decree in 1990 and she was succeeded by Nawaz Sharif who was also shown the door in a similar manner in 1993, bringing Benazir back at the helm. She lasted for a little over two years and was expelled again in 1997 on similar charges, bringing Nawaz Sharif returned for his second term. A major rift between Nawaz Sharif and his Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf over the Kargil War eventually led to his suspension in October 1999. Pakistan under General Musharraf once again came under military rule. Musharraf presided over the country for the next nine years, first as its CEO and subsequently as the President who had the constitutional power to remove the PM.

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Although the first three removals of the sitting PM in the 1990s were orchestrated by the country’s civilian President, behind the scene role played by the military in each of their dismissals was clearly discernable. Musharraf’s coup was a direct military intervention. He singlehandedly ran the country until 2002 when general elections were held and the ‘King’s party’ subservient to him assumed power.

In the national elections held in 2008, the party Musharraf had cobbled together and lost out to the PPP under Asif Ali Zardari who had taken charge following the assassination of Benazir in 2007. Zardari forced President Musharraf to abdicate and self-exile himself to London and Dubai. For as long as Musharraf held the twin portfolios of the Presidency and the COAS, he was practically untouchable. Once adverse domestic circumstances forced him to relinquish the COAS post and appoint General Kayani in his place, the countdown to his ouster started. Kayani, now wearing the powerful COAS hat changed gear and refused to provide Musharraf the needed support needed for survival – such is the power the Pakistani COAS wields.

After Musharraf, PPP under its Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari assumed command of the state. PPP managed to complete its five years term by skillfully managing to stay on the right side of the powerful military. Kayani as the COAS had earlier helped PPP displace Musharraf and under him, the Army continued to support the PPP government.

Read more: Regime Change: The US’ favorite weapon?

For his services, Zardari gave Kayani a second three-year term in 2011

In the 2013 General Elections, PML (N) succeeded to win a comfortable majority and Nawaz Sharif wore the PM crown for the third time. Kayani finally retired in 2014 and as long he was the COAS. Nawaz Sharif had fairly smooth sailing. General Raheel Sharif was appointed as the next COAS and he did not quite see eye to eye with the policies of PML (N). When the Panama Papers broke out where details of costly properties of the Sharif family in London were revealed, Imran Khan, as the opposition leader started a crusade against Nawaz Sharif accusing him of corruption on a massive scale.

Lacking’ the active support of the Army under Raheel, the Supreme Court issued a landmark judgment disqualifying Nawaz Sharif’s membership of the National Assembly for not being ‘Sadiq and Ameen’, invoking Article 62(1)(f) of the constitution. When Nawaz Sharif was shown the door, he nominated Shahid Khakan Abbasi from his party to succeed him as the next PM. PML (N) under Abbasi laboured on and completed its five years term in 20018.

Raheel Sharif retired on time in 2017 and his successor General Qamar Javed Bajwa (QJB) confined the military to its constitutional duties allowing relatively free rein to Abbasi. In the General Elections held in 2018, the PTI, led by Imran Khan (IK) won a plurality and he was elected as the PM. PML(N) and PPP supporters accuse the Army had played a passive or perhaps even an active role in ensuring PTI’s victory.

Imran Khan’s term lasted for just over three and a half years before he was ousted through a No Trust Motion, moved by the combined opposition parties under the banner of PDM. For the first two years, IK had to negotiate the pandemic Covid-19 crisis that had rocked the world. By the time Covid-19 was brought under control, his policies won kudos both at the domestic and international forums. The Army under QJB actively supported the PTI policies on the Covid1-19 control, and Imran rewarded him with a second term in office in 2020.

Read more: Watch: Regime Change Conference first-hand experience shared by Dr Moeed Pirzada

Minor issues had already started to fray IK’s relationship with his Army Chief

IK’s refusal to accept QJB’s advice on changing the chief ministers of KPK and Punjab did not go down well with the latter. The matter came to a head when QJB, in violation of the constitution, announced a change of DG ISI, who comes under the direct control of the PM but in practice, the post of DG ISI, except on two occasions, has been held by a serving Army General. Replacing a serving DG ISI constitutionally is the sole prerogative of the PM.

IK called out QJB and made him follow the constitutional procedure. This too, as tacitly admitted by QJB in various forums, soured the relationship further. The No Trust Motion moved by the PDM was a very legitimate constitutional move for the removal of a sitting PM, and it is widely suspected it had the active support of QJB.

The No-Confidence Motion succeed and IK was replaced by Shahbaz Sharif, younger brother of the deposed Nawaz Sharif. Shahbaz had built his reputation as a very competent Chief Minister of Punjab, from 2008 to 2018. Unfortunately, he, like his elder brother, also carried the stigma of corruption. When being sworn in as the PM, he was on bail, undergoing charges of money laundering in the Pakistani courts. About sixty percent of his current cabinet members, including the PM, are also on bail facing corruption charges in the trial courts.

Read more: Arshad Sharif explains how Pakistani regime changes serve US interests

When Benazir and Nawaz Sharif were alternately overthrown in the 1990s with the tacit support of the Army, the public by and large remained apathetic. Even Nawaz Sharif’s ouster by the Supreme Court did not elicit any large-scale public disapproval.

IK’s dismissal is the latest in the frequent removal of sitting PMs and in every instance the Army’s hand is strongly suspected. Surprisingly, all the earlier dismissals were either unjustified or in violation of the constitution. And yet, there was little public rallying against the earlier ones and instead rejoicing in the streets was commonly reported.

The removal of IK, which is constitutionally correct is witnessing a huge upsurge of public support for the deposed PM and they are increasingly pointing a finger at QJB for masterminding the whole process. Barring a small section, many of whom are direct beneficiaries of the PDM rule, all polls held to date since IK’s removal indicate a substantive increase of support for him and his party.

Why is this so?

When the civilian top leadership was generally viewed as incompetent and corrupt, their removal through fair or foul means with or without the Army’s aid was widely accepted. Why is the public reaction to IK’s dismissal so different?

IK as the PM had taken over in 2018 with the reputation of Mr. Clean. Three and a half years of his rule later, despite all attempts by his adversaries to besmirch his financial integrity, he continues to stand tall in comparison to all his contemporaries, who are considered steeped in corruption. While a number of PTI ministers and advisors have been accused and are being charged with financial irregularities and corruption, IK’s financial integrity has survived and a vast majority of Pakistanis view him as honest.

Read more: Protests against Irani govt! Is US planning another regime change?

High inflation during his three and a half years term was PTI’s Achilles heel that had eroded much of the public support despite the good work the party had undertaken to boost the economy during the Covid-19 onslaught. There was a distinct drop in PTI public support before PDM took over. The PDM coalition’s policies since their take over have resulted in an unprecedented spate of runaway inflation breaking all previous records. Not surprisingly, compared to the PDM performance, PTI’s inflation figures are now being accepted as a job well handled under very trying circumstances. This one factor has led to a surge of support for the party.

IK’s stand on resisting American attempts to make Pakistan subservient to the US global interest has struck a resonant chord with a large section of the public, particularly among the intelligentsia. PM Shahbaz Sharif and his cabinet’s reluctance to approach Russia for purchasing considerably cheaper oil and gas despite these being imported by neighboring India because it would upset the USA is intriguing. It has led to the massive increase in fuel cost, the principal factor in the uncontrolled rise in inflation, and appears to substantiate and strengthen IK’s assertion that the USA had conspired with the Sharifs and Zardaris to effect a regime change. The charges of foreign conspiracy in the manner the No Trust Motion was handled are getting greater acceptance by the public at large, despite DG ISPR’s feeble attempts to dispel it.

Read more: Analyzing the recent regime change in Pakistan

Will the unprecedented public support IK’s rallies are drawing all across the country amount to his returning to power in the near future, is the million-dollar question. The results of the election on 20 seats in the forthcoming by-polls in Punjab on 17 July this year should provide an answer.



Air Cdre (Retd) Jamal Hussain has served in Pakistan Air Force from 1966 to 1997. He was awarded Sitara-e-Basalat for his services in the year 1982. He regularly contributes articles on defense issues in the Defence Journal from Pakistan, Probe Magazine (Dhaka – Bangladesh), and national newspapers including Dawn, The News, and The Nation. He is the author of two books on ‘Air Power in South Asia’ and ‘Dynamics of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia’. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.