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How Imran Khan Wants to Win Back Power in Pakistan

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, speaks in a prerecorded video during the United Nations General Assembly via live stream in New York, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. A scaled-back United Nations General Assembly returns to Manhattan after going completely virtual last year, but fears about a possible spike in Covid-19 cases are making people in the host city less enthusiastic about the annual diplomatic gathering. (Bloomberg)

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was ousted by a no-confidence vote in April 2022, is making a major push to return to power. The former international cricket star has won several by-elections and led big protest rallies — and even escaped an assassination attempt. Khan has also locked horns with the country’s powerful army, which has ruled the country for about half of its 75-year existence. He wants the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to call early elections, which Khan thinks he would win comfortably. 

1. What does Imran Khan want?

The 70-year-old ex-premier has demanded the 13-party coalition government that replaced him set a date for early elections, which aren’t due until October 2023. In by-elections late last year, Khan won six out of seven seats that he personally contested, demonstrating his continued popular appeal. He continues to stage rallies to press for early polls. An opinion poll published in March found his approval rating had climbed dramatically while that of the government sank, dragged down by months of soaring inflation and economic turmoil. 

2. What are the obstacles?

He’s facing multiple court cases, including one for allegedly hiding assets, that could result in him being sentenced to prison or disqualified from holding public office, if convicted. There’s also a history of political violence. During a rally last year, Khan was shot in the leg. He blamed his successor and a senior general for the attack. Both Sharif and the military condemned the shooting. The violence prompted an outpouring of sympathy for Khan, who showed no sign of backing down. 

3. Why was Khan ousted? 

During his turbulent 3 1/2 years in office, Khan demonstrated an approach to governing that critics characterized as haphazard and inconsistent. Facing a balance-of-payments crisis, he delayed seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. He finally did so in 2019, only to see the program suspended in 2020 because of the pandemic. The plan was revived in 2021 — after another stall — after Khan agreed to tougher conditions, including raising oil prices and electricity tariffs. But a few months later, Khan cut domestic fuel costs and power rates to soothe public anger over rising living costs, again putting the IMF program in jeopardy. It was revived again by the Sharif administration in August.

4. What does he say?

He has accused Sharif and other politicians of conspiring with the former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to topple his government because — he says — he had been increasingly critical of the US while seeking better relations with Russia and China. Initially he also accused the US of orchestrating his ouster, but he has softened his tone on the campaign trail, saying he seeks good relations with Washington. Khan provided no proof for his earlier claim, which was denied by the US, the Sharif government and Pakistan’s military. However, his conspiracy theory has gone down well with his supporters.

5. Why is the military’s position important?

Pakistan’s military has outsized power in a country conceived as a democracy. There have been three successful military coups. When Khan became prime minister, it was only the second time since the creation of Pakistan in 1947 that a civilian administration had transferred power to another. Even when elected governments are in power, the military, especially its spy wing, has played a forceful role in foreign and security policies. The armed forces have entrenched positions in the economy through land ownership and shareholdings in large corporations.

6. Did the military support Khan?

Khan has said his relations with the military for his first three years in power were “excellent,” and that he and Bajwa were on the “same page” on all issues — an arrangement critics referred to as a hybrid regime. In behind-the-scenes maneuvers, the armed forces helped him survive several moves by opponents to remove him from power, according to interviews Khan gave after his ouster. (The military has denied helping him.) His government extended Bajwa’s term as army chief for another three years in 2019. However, relations soured in October 2021 when former General Faiz Hameed, the ex-chief of the military’s spy agency and a Khan favorite, was moved to a less significant post. The military announced his replacement, Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmad Anjum, three weeks before the government did, sparking reports of a rift between Khan and Bajwa. When a new challenge to Khan’s leadership arose last year, the military apparently didn’t back him, opposition parties and analysts say. 

7. What’s at stake?

Sharif has rejected early election calls by saying he wants to see through the IMF program and the government term. But he’s lost popular support as voters blame his coalition for the economy’s dire straits. Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded the country’s rating deep into junk, citing the impact of last year’s floods, which caused more than $30 billion in damage to the economy. The rupee has plunged to new lows against the dollar and inflation is hovering at a record high. Sharif and his finance minister, Ishaq Dar, have raised energy prices and taxes and vowed to meet other conditions to revive a loan with the IMF and avoid a default. The premier has also promised a more balanced foreign policy, seeking good ties with “all-weather friend” China, while also seeking better relations with the US and Europe. In September, Pakistan joined China in abstaining on the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s “attempted illegal annexation” of Ukraine.

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