Imran Khan: Down But Not Out

Khan’s popularity has been unprecedented in Pakistan’s recent history and no politician has enjoyed so much public adulation perhaps since the emergence of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1960s

Imran Khan arrives for a protest rally in May 2022. (Photo by Abdul MAJEED/AFP)

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Pakistan’s Election Commission has found former Prime Minister Imran Khan guilty of illegally selling gifts from foreign dignitaries and barred him from holding public office. The ruling came days after he won six of eight parliament seats in a by-poll he described as a referendum on his popularity. Khan’s popularity has been unprecedented in Pakistan’s recent history and no politician has enjoyed so much public adulation perhaps since the emergence of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1960s. It has soared since he was ousted from power in April 2022.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has swept by-polls since his ouster even as almost all political parties joined hands to remove him from power and contested the elections jointly. His disqualification on technical grounds is likely to be overturned and he is expected to emerge stronger on the back of his promise to rid the country of corrupt dynastic politics.    

Khan has been pressing for snap polls and has kept up the momentum by addressing packed rallies across the country. He has maintained a 14-party coalition government of conservatives, secularists, centrists, and Leftists was installed to replace him at the behest of the United States (US) as he threatened to upend the corrupt system.  

The narrative has overshadowed Khan’s misgovernance and flaws. Khan is a national hero. A world cup-winning captain, he is considered Pakistan’s greatest cricketer ever. Khan is seen as a clean politician, who has built charitable hospitals and a university, unlike the traditional politicians perceived to have looted the country and stashed their ill-gotten money abroad. 

The coalescing of the 14 political parties to oust Khan has been a desperate attempt by the traditional dynastic politicians to save the status quo under which power has remained with two families over the last three decades.         

Shehbaz Sharif replaced Khan as the Prime Minister only because his brother, three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and his daughter, Maryam, were ineligible for the top post because of their conviction of graft. His government has suffered a credibility crisis as Nawaz Sharif has been accused of remote controlling it from the United Kingdom, where he has lived since 2019.

The elder Sharif has not returned since he was allowed to go to London for treatment on the condition that he will come back to serve his remaining prison term. Shehbaz Sharif, who too faces serious graft charges, and his Cabinet colleagues have frequently visited London to consult with Nawaz Sharif.  

Key members of the Cabinet have been away in London as Pakistan grappled with issues such as price rise and a faltering economy. The dire situation was accentuated when floods hit the country in August. One-third of Pakistan was submerged while over 1,400 people were killed and 33 million were displaced. The deluge coincided with a widening current-account balance and depleting hard currency. It was projected to cost $30 billion or 9% of Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  

In the middle of the crisis, the Sharifs chose to replace finance minister Mifta Ismail, a Wharton School-trained economist, with Ishaq Dar, a close family member, and a chartered accountant, after managing to ensure his return to Pakistan. Dar fled the country and was declared a proclaimed offender over corruption charges in 2017. He sought asylum in the UK after his passport was cancelled.

Top Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and government positions when it has been in power have remained with the Sharfs since military ruler Zia-ul-Haq handpicked Nawaz Sharif as a provincial minister in the 1980s. Nawaz Sharif handed over the reins of power to his brother in Pakistan’s biggest province of Punjab when he became the prime minister after serving as the provincial chief minister. He also handed over the control of his party to Shehbaz Sharif following his disqualification from holding public office over luxury flats the family owns in London. The flats have been alleged to have been brought through illegally obtained money through offshore holdings.  

Before Khan’s party managed to wrest power from the Sharifs in Punjab, Shehbaz Sharif’s son, Hamza, briefly headed the provincial government this year. Hamza, who also faces corruption allegations, is in charge of the party in Punjab, and Maryam is widely seen as the heir to Nawaz Sharif in national politics.

Pakistan’s politics has over the last three decades been all about dynasties with little commitment to ideology. It has mostly been the means to the end of making money. Asif Ali Zardari exemplifies the rot in Pakistan’s politics as much as the Sharifs. The one-time archrivals joined hands with 12 other parties to oust Khan. The coalition has parties of almost all hues and even those who have been accused of being foreign-funded for orchestrating unrest in Pakistan. It includes bearded maulanas as well as those who swear by liberalism.    

Zardari is seen as the main force behind the coalition, which was stitched together for his survival and to ensure the continuation of the status quo. He too has faced allegations of possessing offshore assets, murder, corruption, and smuggling.

After his wife Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, Zardari took over Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) on the basis of a will she left nominating him as the party chief until their son, Bilawal, was old enough to assume the role. Bilawal, who was 19 then, is now Pakistan’s foreign minister. Zardari, a former president nicknamed ‘Mr 10%’ for the commissions he allegedly charged when Bhutto was the Prime Minister, hopes to see his son as the third Prime Minister from the family.  

Khan’s political opponents were desperate to remove him from power to continue with business as usual. The removal ended up making him more popular. His supporters see Khan’s disqualification as another attempt to prevent Khan from overturning the political status quo. This could make things for Khan’s opponents worse.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is also the only pan-Pakistan party. Khan’s victory in by-elections in constituencies in three of Pakistan’s four provinces underlined this again. His party also rules two of the provinces that account for over 70 percent of Pakistan’s population.

The two other major parties of the Sharifs and Zardari are confined to Punjab and Sindh. Khan has also shown the ability to rally people across Pakistan to bring the government to its knees. The by-election in October confirmed Khan soaring popularity since his ouster in April.

The Election Commission chose to call byelections in only eight of the constituencies, where Khan’s party was seen to be weak. Khan has also announced a long march to press for the demand of a snap national election after drawing tens of thousands at his rallies across Pakistan. He has also taken on the country’s military for conspiring to topple his government, highlighting the confidence he has amid his growing support base and how he may be down but he is certainly not out.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

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