Beleaguered captain: On Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan

Imran Khan will find survival as PM difficult now that he is not the Army's favourite

Published - March 29, 2022 12:10 am IST

Prime Minister Imran Khan showed on Sunday that the passionate base of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) remained intact when tens of thousands of people turned up at Islamabad’s Parade Ground to attend his rally. But his long speech also indicated that the cricketer-turned-politician has finally come to terms with the political challenges he is facing. Mr. Khan, who is facing a no-confidence vote in Parliament, used his carefully worded speech to defend the performance of his government, reiterate the PTI’s “Islamic welfarist” ideology, and set the tone for the future political battles. Drawing parallels between himself and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former Prime Minister who was overthrown in 1977 by General Zia-ul-Haq and later executed, Mr. Khan alleged that there was an international conspiracy against his government. Whether his allegations are true or not, his coalition government is in trouble, surviving on a razor-thin majority in Parliament. At least a dozen lawmakers from his party have revolted against him. Some coalition members have hinted that there could be an early election. Mr. Khan’s invoking of Bhutto’s fate is also seen as veiled criticism of the military establishment. He had been a close ally of the Generals from before the 2018 elections. But the establishment appears to have gone cold on him.

While Mr. Khan has fiercely defended the track record of his government, all is not well at the ground level. There is widespread resentment against the government’s handling of the economy, which the Opposition has tried to capture by mobilising support for the no-trust motion. The crisis is so deep that even government officials are reportedly not paid their salaries on time. On Sunday, Mr. Khan said he would continue his crusade against “white collar crimes”, referring to corruption charges against Opposition leaders. He calls his opponents rodents and has brought dozens of corruption cases against them in the past four years, but none has resulted in a conviction. On the other side, his hardline approach has galvanised the Opposition, including the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan People’s Party, which joined hands with Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam to form the Pakistan Democratic Movement, an umbrella organisation whose sole goal is to bring the PTI government down. While crises piled up one after another, Mr. Khan’s approval rating started slipping. According to a Gallup poll in January, Nawaz Sharif, currently living in exile, was 19 points ahead of Mr. Khan in popularity. Whether Mr. Khan survives the no-trust vote or not, his run as a clean anti-corruption crusader with a mission to build ‘Naya Pakistan’ has come to a halt. His political survival would depend on how he is going to adapt himself and the PTI to the new political environment where he faces a united Opposition without the direct assistance of the military establishment.

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