How Pakistan's Imran Khan found himself fighting for political survival

Dependent on coalition allies, the cricketing hero's government suffered badly from effects of pandemic and differences with the military

Policemen stand guard as activists of the ruling Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party protest in Islamabad after the country’s president dissolved the National Assembly on the advice of Prime Minister Imran Khan. AFP
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As the political walls closed in on Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, the former World Cup-winning cricketer vowed to fight to the last ball to save his leadership.

That final delivery appeared to have come on Sunday morning when he faced a parliamentary no-confidence vote he was widely predicted to lose.

Yet instead of a long walk back to the pavilion, Mr Khan, 69, is still clinging to power after ducking the vote, dissolving the National Assembly and calling fresh elections.

Imran Khan calls move to oust elected Pakistani government ‘a big conspiracy’

Imran Khan calls move to oust elected Pakistani government ‘a big conspiracy’

When the opposition recovered from its shock, it quickly accused the prime minister of treason and breaching the constitution. It has asked the Supreme Court to intervene.

The nation's leading judges have been left to pick through a full-blown constitutional crisis. The court could order the Indian Parliament be reconstituted, or bar Mr Khan from standing again if he is found to have acted unconstitutionally. It could also decide that it cannot intervene in parliamentary affairs and let elections proceed.

Beating the odds

Mr Khan may or may not have saved his position, but it had become increasingly clear in recent weeks that he had little option but to try something desperate.

His nearly four-year tenure as prime minister to the nuclear-armed nation of more than 220 million people was on the brink of ending after political defections and desertions turned the parliamentary numbers game against him.

Mr Khan took power in the general election of July 2018 after a long slog through the political wilderness.

After two decades of slim electoral success, his rallying cry to build a new Pakistan, free of entrenched corruption, appeared eventually to win over significant numbers of the country's youth and middle classes.

But several stark realities of his tenure were clear even as he took office and they have come back to play a part in his latest crisis.

Firstly, his victory was not a landslide, meaning his government would always be dependent on a number of junior coalition partners.

Secondly, he came to power inheriting a rapidly worsening economic crisis, which was exacerbated by the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic. From a shaky starting position, Mr Khan's government was widely accused of mismanagement that hit the wallets of his supporters.

An increase in food and energy costs led to double-digit inflation, hammering the living conditions of the electorate. The economic pain undercut his populist support and provided an easy rallying point for the political opposition. It also hit powerful industrial and commercial lobbies, which can wield significant political clout.

Antagonising the military

A third factor, and some analysts believe the most significant, was Mr Khan's break with the army chief, in a country where the generals have often ruled directly, or otherwise carried hefty influence behind the scenes.

Mr Khan's rapid rise to power came after the military appeared to dramatically turn on the PML-N government of his predecessor Nawaz Sharif. The PML-N alleged after Mr Khan's victory that the former cricket star was nothing more than a military puppet who had benefited from orchestrated ballot rigging.

In the early days Mr Khan appeared to be in closer harmony with the military and the chief of the army staff, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, than any civilian leader in years. He boasted that the civil and military leadership were at last on the same page. There appeared to be no policy cracks between them, even during the 2019 Balakot crisis in Kashmir, New Delhi's cancellation of home rule in the India-administered part of the region, or the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan last August.

The strains did eventually appear in October, when Mr Khan tried to keep his ally Gen Faiz Hameed, head of the military's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, in his job, though the army wanted to move him on. A standoff lasted for several weeks before Gen Bajwa won.

Relations began to deteriorate.

Umer Karim, a researcher at the University of Birmingham, said Mr Khan's attempt to cultivate senior allies within the army and challenge Gen Bajwa's decision had been regarded as unacceptable. “The situation with the director general of the ISI started all this. From a leadership perspective, there was concern over the proximity between Gen Faiz and Imran Khan.”

Some believe the military also became frustrated by Mr Khan's populist foreign policy rhetoric which had led him to turn on America and the European Union.

As the rift became apparent, army statements that it was neutral in politics were interpreted as saying Mr Khan no longer had military support. The opposition became emboldened and were able to lure Mr Khan's minor coalition partners.

Mr Khan's manoeuvring has left him able to fight another day, but if the court reconvenes the National Assembly, his time may still be short. Even if elections are held, it is unclear how he will fare.

Huge crowds attending a political rally in late March testified to his continued support and his charisma. Several commentators suggested the rally, where Mr Khan claimed he was the victim of a foreign conspiracy to oust him, was an attempt to prepare for opposition where he might still have the power to be a significant player.

“He's making quite a political statement and I am sure the military will be nervous,” said Mr Karim.

Updated: April 04, 2022, 2:31 PM