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Pakistan’s Imran Khan: Down But Not Out

Supporters of Imran Khan's Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party wave flags and chant in support of the former prime minister at a rally in Peshawar on April 10.

After the ignominy of becoming the first Pakistani prime minister to be ousted from power through a no-confidence vote, Imran Khan was expected to disappear into political irrelevance.

By the end of his tumultuous three years in office, the populist politician had fallen out with the country’s powerful military, overseen soaring inflation, and undermined the democratic process in the predominately Muslim South Asian nation of 220 million.

But experts said Khan, who still retains support among his urban conservative political base, is unlikely to retreat from the political arena. The 69-year-old, experts said, will look to exploit divisions within the new government and cash in on any missteps by his rivals.

Imran Khan
Imran Khan

Pakistan's newly elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has pledged to offer economic relief to Pakistanis reeling from steep price hikes and repair the fractured political landscape.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistan expert at the University of London, said Khan will be “down and out” if the new administration fulfils its pledges. If not, she said, those broken promises could throw Khan a lifeline.

Siddiqa said Khan’s political future will also depend on the powerful military, which has an oversized role in domestic and foreign affairs. The army, which has staged three coups in the country’s 74-year history, has long been accused of interfering in politics.

The military was widely accused of bringing Khan to power through a rigged general election in 2018, an allegation denied by both parties. But in recent months, Khan and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javad Bajwa have clashed over policy and personnel, a factor that experts said secured the former premier’s downfall.

Siddiqa said Bajwa is likely to try and “cleanse” the institution of Khan’s supporters and to “weaken” wider support for the former prime minister. Bajwa’s success, she said, will determine whether Khan can mount a political comeback.

A Creeping Coup

Afrasiab Khattak, a politician and critic of Khan, said the military threw its support behind Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party, a relative newcomer on the political scene, in an attempt to roll back a decade-old constitutional amendment that made it harder for the military to seize power.

The 18th amendment was enacted by the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in 2010 and backed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Both parties are traditional heavyweights that have fallen out with the military.

Supporters of the PTI rally in support of Khan in Lahore on April 10.
Supporters of the PTI rally in support of Khan in Lahore on April 10.

Under the amendment, power was transferred from the center to the provinces, parliamentary democracy was restored, and paths for the military to overturn civilian rule were closed off.

"Imran was used by [the military] as the political face of a creeping coup," said Khattak. “But the PTI government failed on all fronts, particularly on the economic front."

Khattak said Khan's incompetence led to the military cutting off its support. "Imran, as a close ally of the generals, got trapped in the internal factional squabbles of the army," he said.

Khattak said Khan, in an ironic twist, is now cashing in on growing resentment against the military. "It seems PTI's anti-Bajwa rhetoric is gaining traction in street politics," he said.

Assault On The Constitution

Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistani scholar at the Chatham House think tank in London, said Khan will try to build on his significant following among the young conservative urban middle-class. But she said Khan’s recent attempts to subvert the democratic process could dent that support.

Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote that was held until the early hours of April 10 after a united opposition brought a motion against him following weeks of a political crisis. He earlier had tried to prevent the vote by dissolving parliament and calling early elections, but a Supreme Court ruling ordered the no-confidence vote to go ahead.

Shahbaz Sharif (second right) and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (second left) smile during a press conference with other party leaders in Islamabad on April 7 after the Supreme Court verdict.
Shahbaz Sharif (second right) and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (second left) smile during a press conference with other party leaders in Islamabad on April 7 after the Supreme Court verdict.

Khan had said he would not recognize an opposition government, claiming there was a U.S.-led conspiracy to remove him. Washington has rejected the accusation, and Khan has never provided any evidence for the claim.

Khan already appears to be plotting a comeback. Scores of lawmakers from his PTI party have resigned from parliament in a bid to force elections. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Khan’s supporters have taken to the streets in a show of force.

Shaikh said despite Khan’s “brazen assault on the Constitution,” his brand of “Islamist populism is now deeply entrenched in Pakistan.”

“[It’s] unlikely to dissipate any time soon given the inexorable rise of an urban middle class that is more at ease with the language of authoritarianism than with the values common to liberal democracy," she added.