Standing before tens of thousands of supporters, waving flags bearing his party’s red and green logo, Imran Khan railed against the “foreign conspiracy” to dislodge his government.
Supporters had travelled from across the country for the rally last weekend, pouring into the capital, Islamabad, in cars and buses to express their support as Khan fights for his political life. “Funding is being channelled into Pakistan from abroad in an attempt to change the government,” he told the cheering crowd. “Our own people are being used.”
On Thursday, he reiterated the claim of foreign interference in a live televised address, stating: “America threatened me.” (The US government denies any involvement). But for all this bluster, Khan’s problems are closer to home. “We’ve seen months of political instability, political recriminations and economic mismanagement,” says Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow at Chatham House. “Things had to come to a head.”
When Khan became Pakistan’s prime minister in 2018, he promised to disrupt dynastic politics, end corruption and revitalise the economy. Four years later, he has failed to deliver. After a wave of defections from his parliamentary coalition and his own party – and the loss of all-important military support – he is expected to lose a parliamentary vote of no confidenceon Sunday.
The crisis comes 30 years after Khan led Pakistan’s cricket team to an unlikely victory in the 1992 World Cup. Ahead of the final match against England that year, he famously told his team to “fight like cornered tigers” in a rousing speech that has gone down in sporting history. It is an apt metaphor for Khan’s current approach, as he refuses to step down in the face of mounting pressure.
Khan has a wafer-thin majority in Pakistan’s National Assembly; his Pakistan-e-Tehreek Insaaf (PTI) party and its coalition partners had 176 seats in the 342-member assembly. On Wednesday, a key partner, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM-P) said its seven parliamentarians would vote with the opposition, bolstering its combined 163 seats. Twelve PTI lawmakers also indicated they would cross the floor, which would make it numerically impossible for Khan to win. The government has approached the country’s supreme court to attempt to invalidate the defectors’ votes, a move which could delay the no-confidence motion.
In the last week, Khan has called several large rallies of PTI supporters and branded opposition MPs “traitors”. This is in keeping with his brand of aggressively populist, nationalist politics. Many of those who backed him in 2018 were young, urban, middle-class voters – a broadly conservative demographic in Pakistan – who were tired of endemic corruption and the stranglehold of dynastic politics.
But despite a series of eye-catching promises – such as a pledge to end major corruption in 90 days and to create 10 million jobs – Khan has failed to deliver. With Pakistan’s economy mired in a debt crisis, inflation soaring to double digits and the rupee plunging in value against the dollar, he has struggled to maintain widespread public support.
These problems are not entirely of his own making; global issues, such as rising energy costs and pandemic-related supply-chain problems, have played a part. But Khan’s handling of economic policy has been shambolic; he changed his economic team several times in a short period of time, and delayed seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. That $6bn bailout, agreed last year, has brought painful economic reforms that have further increased fuel and electricity prices.
Throughout his 26 years in politics, Khan has shown himself willing to shapeshift in pursuit of power. Despite his international image as a playboy and socialite, he embraced conservative Islam, earning him the local nickname “Taliban Khan” in reference to his overtures to religious hardliners. In the 2013 election campaign, when Khan really began to gather mass support, he presented himself as an anti-corruption crusader – but in 2018, he gained important political backing from established, highly corrupt feudal politicians.
In opposition, he railed against the outsized role of the military in public life, saying the generals “just don’t have the vision to run the country”. But his rise to political power in 2018 was widely attributed to military patronage. “Khan made a big deal out of being the outsider but his close relationship with the military establishment put a different gloss on his populism,” says Shaikh.
Pakistan has been directly ruled by the military for roughly half of its 75 years, and Khan’s victory in 2018 was only the second transition from one democratically elected government to another. But that victory came amid drastically ramped-up censorship, with widespread allegations of military interference in favour of the PTI. During the election campaign, three news channels were taken off air by the regulator after broadcasting speeches by major opposition parties, while PTI rallies aired without problems. Every opposition party initially rejected his win, alleging vote-rigging.
Once he was in power, Khan did nothing to build bridges, instead jailing prominent opposition politicians – including his two predecessors, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari – on corruption charges. Khan has since presided over further crackdowns on free speech and political opposition. During his tenure, scores of journalists, activists and protesters, including a sitting member of parliament, have been arrested for sedition or under counterterrorism laws.
At rallies, Khan refers to the three main opposition parties as “the three stooges” or “three mice”. For most of Pakistan’s history, the two dynastic parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), have been at loggerheads, but now they have formed an unlikely alliance, along with the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), to oust Khan.
An important factor in Khan’s troubles is the apparent loss of military support, a dramatic change in political dynamics which has emboldened the opposition to strike now. Even when it is not in direct control of Pakistan, the army pulls strings behind the scenes, particularly on foreign policy and domestic security. “The military role was much more explicit and open than for any previous government,” says Shaikh. “Khan saw it as a source of strength, rather than weakness, and flaunted it.”
The relationship with the military began to sour in October when Khan resisted the army’s choice for a new head of the intelligence service. It is extremely unusual for a civilian politician to push back on army appointments. The generals prevailed but concerns remained that Khan might try to place a loyal aide in charge of the army when the chief role comes up for renewal this year. “He is arrogant,” says Zia Ur Rehman, a Karachi-based journalist and researcher. “He tried to be something different than previous prime ministers, but this was a huge misjudgement.”
In the febrile world of Pakistani politics, no prime minister has ever completed a full term. Even if Khan is ousted, it is unlikely that it will spell the end of his political career. Ever since he founded the PTI in 1996, Khan has been a campaigning politician. He seems most comfortable in front of a crowd of rapturous supporters rather than doing the more mundane and methodical work of government. “Khan has continued to act like an opposition leader despite being prime minister – using rallies to criticise the opposition and even to relay messages to foreign powers,” says Ur Rehman. “His removal will give him a new political life.”
When the confidence motion was called, Khan’s information minister, Fawad Chaudry, warned that “one million” PTI supporters would come to Islamabad on the day of the vote, and that anyone voting against Khan would “have to pass through these people on their way in and out of parliament”. This thinly veiled threat is ominous in the context of Pakistan, where political differences often erupt into violence. Human Rights Watch called on the government to “uphold the constitution and allow for voting without threats or violence”.
It may be a sign of things to come as the PTI loses its grip on power. Even as he has lost mass public support, Khan has had no problems calling huge rallies across Pakistan. “His deeply reactionary politics resonates across swathes of the country,” says Shaikh. “This brand of politics will outlive him. That will be his legacy.”
Samira Shackle is the author of Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City (Granta)