Imran Khan’s politics has put Pakistan at the crossroads

His confrontation with the establishment is only just beginning.

November 05, 2022 12:17 pm | Updated November 06, 2022 06:07 pm IST

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. File

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. File | Photo Credit: AP

The gun attack that injured Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, may have created a wave of sympathy and added to his burgeoning popularity. But it could also derail his campaign for early elections through a long march on Islamabad. An injured Mr. Khan might not be able to lead protest rallies of his supporters and, in his absence, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) might not attract sufficiently large crowds. 

Tragedy averted 

Pakistan averted another tragedy in its long and bloody history of assassinated and hanged Prime Ministers when Imran Khan survived the attack. This tragic history, which began with the assassination of Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, in Rawalpindi in 1951, includes the judicial murder by hanging of former President and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979, and the assassination of his daughter, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in 2007. 

Fact check: Old pictures falsely linked to gun attack on Imran Khan

While averting the ultimate calamity that has befallen several civilian Pakistani leaders before him, Mr. Khan is still hoping to make history by successfully challenging the country’s military establishment. By refusing to bow out after being removed from office through a parliamentary vote of no confidence, and waiting for elections scheduled next year, he is challenging the all-powerful armed forces to either allow the democratic process to take its course unimpeded or directly impose martial law.

Since his removal from power, Mr. Khan has consistently upped the ante in his effort against the establishment’s ability to influence politics from behind the scenes. His narrative, not backed by any evidence, is that his removal from office was the result of a conspiracy involving the United States and the military leadership. This conspiracy theory has found resonance with the traditionally pro-military right-wing elements of Pakistani society. 

Politics of grievance

Most of Mr. Khan’s supporters feel aggrieved that their ‘patriotic’ leader has been removed from office, and under Mr. Khan’s influence, they blame the Army Chief and certain specific generals for his removal. They dislike the country’s two traditional democratic parties — the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — and were not averse to military machinations of the past directed against those parties. 

In some ways, Mr. Khan and his supporters represent the attitude of some supporters of Brazil’s right-wing former President, Jair Bolsonaro, who lost his bid for re-election recently. Hardline Bolsonaro supporters took to the streets to demand that the military keep him as President because his left-wing rival was not patriotic enough. Mr. Khan, too, has been effectively calling on the army to directly interfere in the democratic process by forcing early elections, which he thinks he can win because of his current popularity. 

Most political analysts agree that the Pakistan army built up Mr. Khan’s political standing and brought him to power in 2018 under democratic guise. He was expected to provide civilian cover for policies favoured by the military. For almost three years, Mr. Khan and the military leadership both asserted that they were “on one page”. But now it is a unique moment in Pakistan’s history where the creator and the creation are at loggerheads.

An unusual press conference

Mr. Khan has made comments to the effect that he would prefer martial law to the current political dispensation comprising his political rivals. His remarks followed the unprecedented press conference on October 27 by the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), Lt. General Nadeem Anjum, and the Director General for Inter-Services Public Relations, Lt. General Babar Iftikhar. The chief aim of the presser appeared to be to deny all involvement in the killing of pro-Imran leaning journalist Arshad Sharif in Kenya. 

Also read | Attack on Imran Khan: Pakistan police arrest two more suspects

The generals sought to assert that the Pakistan Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and the army as an institution had decided to become apolitical and to expose Mr. Khan’s two-faced approach to his relationship with the military. Mr. Khan privately continues to ask for help from the top brass while publicly condemning them. 

From the military’s perspective, Mr. Khan’s refusal to bow out without generating chaos is interfering with efforts to restore Pakistan’s economy and its relationships abroad, which have been adversely impacted by his demagoguery. According to a World Bank report released in October, Pakistan’s economy is expected to grow by only 2% in the fiscal year ending in June 2023. 

The causes of economic decline include the recent catastrophic floods, high inflation and a difficult global environment. But the political uncertainty created by Mr. Khan’s agitation has also played a significant role. The World Bank report also warns that poverty in the areas worst hit by the floods will worsen and that the national poverty rate may increase by 2.5-4 percentage points. 

This harsh economic reality has brought great pressure on the current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the coalition government he leads. Ironically, it has refreshed the popularity of Mr. Khan which had started to dim after three and a half years of rule. Mr. Khan’s treatment of the media, his autocratic rule, and the allegations of corruption which recently enabled his disqualification by the Election Commission of Pakistan stopped being the story once he was removed from office and took to the streets.

Riding on populism

Mr. Khan’s populism combines Islamist and nationalist slogans with a civilian strongman image. His autocratic style and his changing political positions have affirmed the fact he has never been much of a democrat. He appeals to Pakistan’s unemployed youth who face difficult times and to serving and retired soldiers and government servants who are upset at Pakistan’s declining international standing. But his appeal is similar to that of other populist strongmen in countries facing decline. 

His success, if it comes, will not strengthen constitutional rule, civilian supremacy or democracy. It will only result in the emergence of an ultra-nationalist, neo-fascist era under a civilian rather than a military leader. Mr. Khan’s threats to set Pakistan afire do not reflect a willingness to work within constitutional limitations. Pakistan’s traditional democratic parties, with all their flaws, understand the need for compromise. Mr. Khan does not.

The leaders of the PML and the PPP have all experienced personal consequences of standing up to the establishment. They have survived the constant undermining of democratic institutions, such as the parliament, the constitution and the supreme court. They have had to fight for free and fair elections and endured hangings, assassinations, jail terms, torture and exile. Mr. Khan and the PTI have yet to encounter such suffering.

Mr. Khan was recently disqualified from membership of the current term of the National Assembly by a five-member panel of the Election Commission of Pakistan. He has been injured in a shooting incident, possibly an assassination attempt, that has yet to be fully investigated. But his confrontation with the establishment is only just beginning.  

(Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of the National Assembly of Pakistan and the editor of the forthcoming book, Politics of Hate: Regional Majoritarianism in South Asia)

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