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Pakistan Chooses New Prime Minister After Ousting Imran Khan, Who Alleges U.S.-Backed Coup

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Shahbaz Sharif was chosen as Pakistan’s new prime minister on Monday after Imran Khan was removed in a no-confidence vote in Parliament on Sunday. Khan’s ouster came after the nation’s Supreme Court ruled Khan’s attempt to dissolve Parliament earlier this month was illegal. Khan blamed his removal on a “U.S.-backed regime change” plot backed by his opposition, and lawmakers of his party have resigned en masse. We go to Islamabad to speak with Tooba Syed, a member of Pakistan’s left-wing Awami Workers Party, who says Khan’s allegations aren’t substantiated by evidence and come amid Khan’s tendency to use anti-American sentiment to strengthen his populist platform while upholding policies that hurt working-class Pakistani people and women. We also speak with historian Tariq Ali, who says the major Pakistani political parties are ravaged by corruption and overinfluenced by the military and financial incentives. Both Ali and Syed agree the election of establishment politician Shahbaz Sharif will not change conditions in Pakistan.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Pakistan, where Prime Minister Imran Khan has been ousted from power after losing a no-confidence vote in Parliament. At a session today just before we went to broadcast, lawmakers elected the opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif as the country’s new prime minister. This comes after hundreds of thousands of Khan’s supporters marched in cities across Pakistan Sunday night.

AMBAREEN TURK: [translated] God willing, the last decision will be of the people. In a democratic system, the final voice will be the voice of the people. And the voice of the people is Imran Khan.

ZAHID HUSSAIN: [translated] Imran Khan has been removed through a foreign conspiracy. God willing, we will fight back to make him prime minister again. We don’t want these thieves.

AMY GOODMAN: In a tweet, Imran Khan described his removal as a form of, quote, “U.S.-backed regime change,” writing, quote, “Thank you to all Pakistanis for their amazing outpouring of support & emotions to protest against US-backed regime change abetted by local Mir Jafars to bring into power a coterie of pliable crooks all out on bail. Shows Pakistanis at home & abroad have emphatically rejected this,” Khan tweeted.

Khan’s ouster came after he dissolved Parliament earlier this month to stop a no-confidence vote demanded by the opposition, which then appealed to the Supreme Court. After four days of deliberation, the court ordered the Parliament to be reinstated, and the no-confidence was held Saturday in a marathon 13-hour session. This is Pakistan’s National Assembly speaker announcing the results of the vote.

AYAZ SADIQ: One seventy-four members have recorded their votes in favor of the resolution. Consequently, the resolution for vote of no confidence against Mr. Imran Khan, the prime minister of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, has been passed by a majority of the total membership of the National Assembly.

AMY GOODMAN: As we reported, Pakistani lawmakers have just chosen the opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif as the country’s new prime minister. This comes as members of Khan’s PTI party announced they have decided to resign en masse from Parliament. Khan loyalist Shah Mahmoud Qureshi, the former foreign minister, said, quote, “This house is going to elect a new prime minister but everyone knows … (Sharif) is being imposed and does not have the mandate of the people… We reject this process and also announce a boycott of the election for Prime Minister.”

For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Islamabad, Pakistan, Tooba Syed is with us, a Pakistani activist and member of the left-wing Awami Workers Party. She’s also affiliated with the Women Democratic Front, an independent socialist-feminist resistance movement. And in London, we’re joined by the historian, activist, filmmaker and author Tariq Ali. He’s on the editorial committee of the New Left Review, author of many books, including Uprising in Pakistan: How to Bring Down a Dictatorship, which came out in 2018, and Can Pakistan Survive?

Welcome to both of you. I want to begin in Pakistan. Tooba Syed, can you respond to the ouster of Imran Khan and his description of what happened as a U.S.-backed coup?

TOOBA SYED: Thank you, Amy.

Just to begin with, I feel like this is probably the first time in Pakistan that a prime minister has been constitutionally removed from his position. And I think that’s particularly important to remember, that in the history Pakistan we’ve seen multiple prime ministers removed from their positions without a constitutional process. It’s usually been done by military interventions, so it’s definitely a good step forward in terms of democracy in Pakistan that this was not done through a military dictatorship or military intervention, but done through a vote of no confidence, which went through the Parliament or the National Assembly itself.

As far as his own allegations are concerned regarding this being U.S.-backed, frankly, Khan hasn’t presented any kind of substantial evidence, at least to the public, which confirms his allegations. We have no evidence of anything that he’s alleging right now. So, you know, as long as he doesn’t provide a solid evidence or a testimony or any kind of document, it’s very hard to say that what he’s alleging is true. I mean, he literally waved a piece of paper in the air, saying, “This is a letter that I’ve gotten which speaks about the U.S. involvement in my removal.” And beyond that, we know nothing. So it’s very difficult to say for us right now that whatever he’s alleging is actually true.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why he was removed?

TOOBA SYED: I mean, there were various reasons for his removal. He was never favored by the opposition since the very beginning, because Khan came into power by actually alleging that the opposition leaders, almost all the parties, especially the former prime minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, were involved in corruption. And none of the charges that he alleged against the opposition or the then-government have not been proven in any of the courts. So, one reason for his ouster is also that he was not favored by any of the opposition leaders.

His own allies in this vote of no confidence, who formed the government with him — and that’s how he was able to form the government — went against him. His own party — the people who won from his party ticket in the national elections actually went against him and voted the vote of no confidence. And also the economical situation — the economical situation in the country has gotten much, much worse since Khan came into power and after his last agreement with the IMF.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, from your vantage point in London, though of course you are originally from Pakistan, can you talk about what you think is behind what took place? I mean, it is not unusual that a prime minister hasn’t finished his term; since the establishment of the state of Pakistan, I don’t think any prime minister has completed a term. Pakistan has had 29 prime ministers since 1947. None completed a full five-year term.

TARIQ ALI: This is absolutely true, Amy. And one reason they didn’t complete their terms is that the military took over at key points of the country’s history. We’ve had three military coup d’états, one that led to the breakup of the country as it was in 1947. This happened in 1971. And subsequently, Nawaz Sharif, whose brother is now the prime minister, his ham-fisted attempt to retire the chief of staff, General Musharraf, by kidnapping him and not letting his plane land, led to Musharraf’s military coup, which stayed in power for several years. So, we’ve had a very tormented political history in that country. And I think one thing which we should remember is that regardless of whether there is a military coup or not, the military plays a central role in the country in its foreign and defense policies and often in deciding who becomes prime minister and who doesn’t. Anyone who’s been prime minister in the '80s and ’90s will tell you that. There's constant advice/interference from the Army.

So, as far as Imran is concerned, he had been brought — he had not got a majority in the election he won. And these tiny parties, which usually do the bidding of the military, were, you know, lined up to provide him with a majority. The opposition, which is no better, in my opinion — it’s wrong to present them in any way as offering any real alternative in that country — has been clamoring for three years for a vote of no confidence. Suddenly it happens, and these parties that had been organized to back Imran withdraw their support. His own party is split.

One thing has to be said. If you ask, “Has the PTI government achieved anything?” I would say no. It’s had — faced tough economic problems. It’s gone to the IMF. All that is true. But it had no vision at all, just like the other political parties in the country. So it became like them. And all the promises of modernizing Pakistan, changing it forever, amounted to nothing. At the same time, corruption continued, including from Imran’s family. His latest wife, Bushra Bibi, has a circle of friends around her who have made pots of money by appointing a complete imbecile as chief minister of the Punjab. So, all these things began to weigh up.

Now, the question — Imran is saying, “The Americans got rid of me.” Well, they may have. We don’t know. And by the way, there’s never paper evidence when the United States decides to remove a regime, except general 15 years later, unless WikiLeaks releases it. So it’s not impossible that the United States expressed displeasure, because Imran had described the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan as an American mess. That didn’t please the State Department. On the Ukraine, he took a position similar to that of India and China. That didn’t please the United States. And General Bajwa — you know, talk about democracy — General Bajwa issues a foreign policy statement clarifying Pakistan’s position on Ukraine the same week. So it wouldn’t surprise me if the United States said he’s becoming a nuisance or something like that. I mean, they’re well known to topple governments all over the world. But I don’t think that this is the central issue.

The central issue is the incapacity of the PTI government, basically, to do anything for the country. And when you announced the name of the new prime minister, Amy, my heart did sink, because these are people who exercised power before. These are politicians. And that was Imran’s strategy. He became just like them. These are politicians who never hear the sobbing of the weak, never hear the sobbing of the poor. They basically come into politics, make lots of money, see who’s making more money than the others. It’s a competition to make money. Pakistani politics has been totally embroiled and imbricated in the making of money — the two dynastic parties, PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League, and, lately, the PTI, as well as the smaller parties. So this is a tragedy. And I don’t think any change of government is going to solve that problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Shahbaz Sharif is the new prime minister. His brother Nawaz is where you are — well, at least in the same country. He’s in London and says he’s going to be going back to Pakistan — in exile in London. Tooba Syed, if you could talk about this moment? I mean, you have President Biden today having a meeting with the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi — of course, India and Pakistan, nuclear rivals with each other. And if you can talk more about the context of what’s happened now, whether or not the U.S. was involved? Clearly, as you said, the Pakistani Parliament has engaged in the no-confidence vote. The question of Imran Khan’s relationship with China and Russia, the same issue that Biden will be bringing up for India, and yet India and Pakistan are both competitors. Is it no mistake that they’re meeting on the same day that the new prime minister is chosen in Pakistan?

TOOBA SYED: Definitely raises some suspicions in our minds, as well. I mean, we know the tensions between India and Pakistan that’s going on, and the U.S.-Pakistan relationships have not been great lately, as well. But I think we should make no mistake: Imran Khan is a populist, a center, right-wing populist leader, and he’s using this opportunity to really encash on this anti-Americanism which can be seen. And we’ve seen many, in the U.S. left especially, thinking that Imran Khan is some sort of anti-imperialist hero from the Third World, which is certainly not the case. But we see this — this is something — this card of anti-Americanism has been used multiple times in the past in Pakistani politics by right-wing leaders. And we see Imran Khan using that same card this time, because elections is coming up. He knows he’s going to contest.

So this is another populist move of his to also maybe take revenge from his own people and his own country by making the relationship so complicated between the two countries. And we feel it’s a very sensitive moment. But we also know that Imran Khan is known for his stubbornness and his destructiveness when it comes for him to gaining power. I mean, during his regime, the rights activists and the left-wing political workers went through the worst forms of harassments and attacks, whether you talk about students or the doctors during the pandemic, the students protesting during the pandemic, the workers being laid off. He has had a very terrible history of suppressing any voices which speak against him. And we see that this might be another way of Imran Khan perhaps taking revenge from the country itself and from the opposition, because he knows that the next government which is going to come into power, even if it’s an interim government, is not going to be able to clean up the mess that Imran’s government created.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about his attitudes towards and policies towards women in Pakistan, Tooba?

TOOBA SYED: I mean, it’s been completely horrible. There have been — you know, there have been increase in sexual crimes in Pakistan against women, especially during the pandemic. And the only kind of statements that kept coming from his side were that this is because there’s vulgarity on media, this is happening in Pakistan because feminism is a Western concept.

And I don’t know if you know or not, but there’s a very charged, robust movement in Pakistan, a women’s movement in Pakistan, running from the last five years. The government itself has been complicit in attacking the movement. Last year, when there were several false allegations against this movement, against various women’s rights activists, the Khan government did not speak up. They did not do anything to protect these women, because there were religious right-wing groups who were threatening the lives of these women. Some women had to leave their jobs, had to leave country, take exile, go into some form of safety. The government did not do anything for the women’s rights activists who were under threat.

There has been a constant dismissal of the kind of sexual violence that is present within Pakistan by the government. We’ve also seen that there were certain bills which other politicians were trying to pass, which the Khan government actually sent to the Council of Islamic Ideology to judge, which they knew that they would never approve those bills. There have been multiple pro-women’s rights bills which have been dismissed in the Khan government by Khan’s own party members.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the new prime minister and his role, Shahbaz Sharif?

TOOBA SYED: I mean, I agree with pretty much what Tariq Ali has said here. We have tried and tested all these political parties. Shahbaz Sharif is also just another right-wing political leader. His past history in the country, or even the history of his party, tells us that they’re not coming to serve the people. They will come and serve their own interests and the interests of the big businessmen in Pakistan. We’ve known all these parties to be corrupt, to be anti-people, to come and make anti-people policies, to make absolutely terrible economic decisions, go back to IMF, have terrible negotiations with them.

So, in my opinion, yes, there might be some changes in terms of maybe this government will be more clever in how they attack their opponents and the women’s rights workers and the rights activists, but in terms of, overall, if this is going to change the country or make anything better for the average, normal working people, I don’t think so.

AMY GOODMAN: And who are the people who have turned out in mass protest around the country, around the ouster of Imran Khan, Tooba?

TOOBA SYED: Imran Khan has always had — because of, you know, being a cricketer and being a populist center leader, he has always had support from the urban middle class. And this is that urban middle class which comes out in his support, which is not as affected by his policy as the working class, as the majority working class of the country. So we see the same people coming out for him again and again. And a lot of his support is definitely, in my opinion, educated, urban, middle-class people who live far from the realities of what everyday working-class people go through in this country. And it’s the same people who come up again and again for his support. I mean, he has a popular support, but he’s not the most popular leader in the country at the same time.

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