Nearly two years ago, Prime Minister Imran Khan assumed office promising a ‘new Pakistan’ where his administration will serve the country’s poor after rooting out endemic corruption.
Instead today, the former cricket star turned politician appears to be fighting for political survival amid crises affecting his powerbase, his relationship with the country’s powerful military, and his performance in the face of multiple challenges affecting the well-being of 220 million Pakistanis.
Khan’s paramount challenge is to keep his wafer-thin majority in the National Assembly or popularly elected lower house of the parliament. After a small political party recently left the ruling coalition dominated by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party, others openly threatened to follow suit.
Khan then scrambled to show he still has the backing of a majority in the 342-member house. On June 28, he hosted a dinner for lawmakers at his residence aimed at demonstrating that he still enjoys a majority in the National Assembly, where his party retains only 46 percent of the seats and depends on several smaller parties remaining in office.
While there is no agreement on how many MPs showed up, the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e Azam, a small centrist group, joined the Balochistan National Party (BNP) in staying away. Akhtar Mengal, BNP’s leader, shocked the parliament by withdrawing his support from Khan’s administration on June 17.
In speeches in the days following the dinner, Khan repeatedly hinted he might not remain in power. His own words lent some credence to speculations of his ouster, which is repeatedly being demanded and echoed by opposition leaders.
“[The opposition] thinks that by pressuring Imran [and forcing him to leave] under a minus-one formula, they will be rescued,” Khan told the parliament on July 1 while alluding to increasing talk of his imminent departure from the prime minister’s office. “Even if I leave, nobody else will spare them.”
"Today you're here, tomorrow you may not be,” he told lawmakers on June 30. “I live in my house and bear all my own expenses except travel and security,” he added. “I do this so that I am not scared about leaving the office and don't have to compromise on my moral [principles]."
In a telling example of his growing political challenges, Khan advised PTI leaders to not be scared of losing their grip on power. "No one can topple our party’s government so long as we stand by our principles," he said.
But in a sign of internal turmoil, several senior PTI leaders have recently made public accusations against each other and exposed internal rivalries in media interviews.
The PTI’s apparent disintegration began after Jahangir Tareen, a senior party leader and billionaire, was implicated for profiteering from sugar in a government report in March. Once known as Khan’s Automated Teller Machine, Tareen has fallen from favor and appears to have lost all contacts with the PTI.
Yet Khan’s diehard fans stick by him. Ali Muhammad Khan, a junior minister and PTI firebrand, warned Khan’s departure would harm the country’s anemic democracy. “Those talking about removing Imran Khan must know that if he is removed the democracy will also end,” he tweeted on June 30.
In Pakistan’s checkered 72-year history, representative rule is often interrupted by military coups. But the PTI never opposed the country’s powerful general and its administrations often celebrated being on the same page with the military. Opposition politicians have frequently criticized the military for helping Khan assume power by rigging the parliamentary election in his favor in July 2018.
But Khan’s relationship with the military reportedly soured in recent months after his administration mishandled the coronavirus pandemic and faced increasing criticism over its handling of the economy, the aftermath of an airliner crash, and its apparent inability to forcefully respond to frequent accusations of incompetence by giving Pakistanis some relief at a time when they are facing so many pressures.
“Nobody needs to topple the government because it has completely failed,” said Shahid Khaqan Abassi, a former prime minister and leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz.
“There is no hope [for Khan’s administration],” he told Samma, a private television news station. “The track record of this government is that they have destroyed every institution and created turbulence within the political arena,” he added. “The masses are really worried. They have no employment and their businesses are sinking.”
Abassi says the government failed to effectively respond to the coronavirus pandemic. “The government has no strategy to tackle this disease, which has increased exponentially,” he said.
Elizabeth Threlkeld, deputy director for South Asia at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, however, sees no change at the top in the near term.
“Even though Khan's administration has struggled with the recent COVID-19 outbreak and economic crisis, such a transition would be disruptive,” she said. “A more likely alternative would be continued turnover at the cabinet level and in other key posts.”
Threlkeld says the targeting of targeting of political opponents, a key issue to Khan’s followers, has largely overshadowed his governance objectives since assuming office in August 2018.
“A greater challenge to Khan's poverty alleviation agenda has been Pakistan's weak economy, made worse by COVID-19,” she said. “This crisis represents an opportunity to bring together opposition parties in a unified response, though PTI seems unlikely to extend an olive branch.”
As uncertainty looms large over a divided Islamabad, the talk of a minus-one formula -- meaning Khan can be replaced with another PTI stalwart -- is unlikely to abate anytime soon.