On the cricket field, Pakistan’s Imran Khan was a galvanizing captain and leader—a talisman who knitted together a gaggle of mercurial talents and journeymen into a cohesive whole, which overcame extraordinary odds to famously beat England to lift the Cricket World Cup in 1992.
There were glimpses of these qualities when Khan rose to become Pakistan’s Prime Minister in 2018: Campaigning on an anti-graft ticket, he brought together aspirational workers, Islamic hardliners and the nation’s powerful military to derail the political juggernaut of his longtime nemesis, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The self-proclaimed bold reformer is now unnervingly divided since his election to the presidency. Khan refused to negotiate with rivals, and made concessions for unsavory parties like Tehreek e-Labbaik, the far-right party, even though it has staged deadly protests. After almost four years of U-turns, antagonizing rivals and alienating supporters, Khan, 69, today cuts a bitter figure, sulking at Joe Biden’s failure to call him following his own election victory, and ranting—without evidence—about a U.S.-sponsored plot to oust him.
He embraced Vladimir Putin, seemingly out of spite and against all advice, just as Russia’s President invaded Ukraine. “What a time I have come, so much excitement!” Khan told journalists Feb. 23 on a red carpet during a visit to Moscow.
“[Angered] at Biden’s snubs, [Khan] used the crisis as an opportunity,” says Murtaza Solangi, a veteran political commentator and former Director General of Radio Pakistan.
It’s quite a departure from the Khan who delivered a letter to the U.N. office in Islamabad in 1999 to condemn “the complete apathy and indifference towards the plight of the innocent Chechens who are being systematically annihilated by the Russians,” as supporters for his Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party chanted “death to Russia.”
As a man who calls Osama Bin Laden a “martyr” while praising Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority, Khan appears to be capable of very selective reasoning. But by embracing Putin, the cricketer-turned-politician, playboy-turned-conservative, defender of Islam-turned-apologist for Muslim genocide, may have finally become ensnared in his own mind-bending contortions.
Khan, who had been to Moscow for the first time in his life, was soon left struggling for his political future after a series of defections from PTI., This prompted a vote of no confidence, which he just ignored by calling for fresh elections and dissolving parliament. The move was justified by him claiming his opponents were an American-orchestrated fifth Column, putting Pakistan in a constitutional crisis.
On Thursday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that Khan was unconstitutional by dissolving the parliament and set a fresh no confidence vote for April 9 that the Prime Minister looks certain to lose. In the event that Khan does so, Pakistan’s Supreme Court will require lawmakers to choose a interim Prime Minister to head their nuclear-armed nation of 220 millions. The leader of the Opposition would theoretically be permitted to remain in office until August 2023’s elections, but it has stated that it may seek another mandate during the months ahead.
Ultimately, Khan’s relentless taunting of the U.S. torpedoed his relationship with Pakistan’s powerful military, which remains much more interested in retaining good relations with Washington. While Khan has refused to condemn Putin’s invasion, insisting, like China, on remaining “neutral” and deflecting uncomfortable questions onto U.S. foreign policy, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa told an international security dialogue April 2 that the “thousands of people … killed, millions made refugees and half of Ukraine destroyed … cannot be condoned.”
Khan’s relationship with the top brass was already frayed after he refused to endorse Bajwa’s choice for the new chief of Pakistan’s fearsome intelligence services, or ISI, because of his close relationship with the incumbent, General Faiz Hameed. Khan delayed in granting the green light to the switch and the opposition saw weakness, so they voted no-confidence. “His relationship with the Army Chief is pretty much shot,” says Michael Kugelman, the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Pakistan’s no confidence vote
Given that no Pakistani Prime Minister has ever finished a five-year term, it may be unfair to characterize Khan’s stint in power as a failure. But successes are difficult to identify for the swashbuckling former cricketer, who lurched from international playboy and husband of Jemima Goldsmith—a British socialite and close friend of Princess Diana—into Islamic conservatism and a staunch defender of the Taliban in a little over a decade. The election will largely determine whether the world’s fifth-most populous nation tilts even further toward Russia and China or shifts back to aligning with the U.S. and Europe.
It’s certainly going to be more difficult for Khan to mount a comeback than four years ago, when he had the full backing of the military, which launched a slew of strong-armed tactics to overturn a 13-point lead held by Sharif’s incumbent PML-N party just weeks before the July ballot. The 2018 vote, which Khan hailed as the “cleanest election” in Pakistan’s history, had its result rejected by six other parties before the count had even finished, citing “serious irregularities,” such as the ejection of observers.
“It doesn’t matter whether you voted for Imran Khan or not,” says Mohammad Haris, a door-to-door salesman from Rawalpindi. “Even if you voted for someone else, your vote still got counted for him. Now we’re all suffering because of how expensive things are. All of our businesses are in ruin. Everyone is crying.”
Khan’s disastrous bungling of the economy defines him for ordinary Pakistanis today. It is clear that the Finance Ministers are a revolving caste. They have failed to correct many problems inherited from the country. These were made more difficult by poor management and the global headwinds, such as the pandemic and the rising oil prices.
In 2018, Khan pledged not to follow previous administrations’ “begging bowl” tactics of foreign borrowing in order to end Pakistan’s cycle of debt. He reached a six-billion dollar loan deal with IMF in return for cutting social and developmental spending. This deal eventually led to inflation, making Pakistan the most infected country in South Asia. In January, Pakistan’s consumer price index, a measure of inflation, rose to 13%, squeezing the middle class and causing living standards to deteriorate.
In November, Khan unveiled a $709 million package of food subsidies to offset the financial burden of soaring prices of essentials such as flour, ghee and some pulses, trumpeting it as “Pakistan’s biggest ever welfare program.” But ever more families are being pushed to the brink.
“My business is still profitable—by the grace of Allah—but my customers have suffered a lot,” says Muhammad Azeem, owner of a perfume shop in Rawalpindi. “The truth is that the price of raw materials has increased so sharply that we’ve been forced to raise our prices to keep up our margins.”
Khan achieved some international success by positioning himself as a leader in developing countries. This included promoting debt relief and fighting Islamophobia. It also helped cement Pakistan as a regional actor on Afghanistan’s neighbor, as well as strengthening relations with Russia, Turkey, and Russia. “He does deserve credit for getting Pakistan to engage more deeply with the world, particularly at a moment when India has been trying to isolate it,” says Kugelman.
However, Khan’s perceived closeness to Putin has proven a major misstep. As with his embrace for Beijing, it seems that economic expediency is at the center of all relations. Moscow was the place where the leaders discussed the Pakistan Stream gas pipe, worth $2.5billion, Moscow’s plan to construct between Karachi, Kasur. There were still ways to keep commercial relations intact without engaging in harmful optics. Ask Europe.
To win an election without military backing would be a feat even more remarkable than Khan’s fabled 1992 cricketing triumph. Khan’s attacks over the past week have still roused PTI ranks and filial, reinvigorating supporters whom Khan already called out to the streets in an act of force. It has also raised the specter political violence. “In Pakistan, the [anti-U.S.] narrative plays very well, particularly within key components of the electorate like young conservative, middle-class voters,” says Kugelman. “And I’m sure that he’ll bring it up a lot.”
—With reporting by Hasan Ali/Islamabad
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