Imran Khan, the cricket hero, legendary lothario and deposed prime minister of Pakistan, is in trouble again. His political opponents in the police and the judiciary, in a manner not dissimilar to the judicial attack on Donald Trump, have moved against Khan in recent days by accusing him of terrorist activities. In theory, these charges could carry the death penalty.
Khan’s crime was to threaten retaliatory action against the police and the judiciary in revenge for the arrest of his chief of staff, Shahbaz Gill. Gill had been roughly arrested by police and his assistant allegedly beaten up. In addition, police had tried to apprehend former Khan acolyte and home affairs minister, Sheikh Rashid. But he escaped the net and is now in hiding.
The likelihood that this is a government orchestrated judicial plot to stop Khan from running in the October elections. That suggestion is made more credible by the media regulator banning the former prime minister from making live broadcasts on national television. There is arguably another parallel here with Twitter’s banning of Donald Trump.
Khan is now holed up in his farm outside Islamabad. His fanatical supporters, again with echoes of Mar-a-Lago, are encamped outside to prevent his arrest. Wisely the police have refrained from doing this. Khan meanwhile is busily applying for pre-emptive bail. Ultimately the chances of him going to prison are remote. Legal expert Abuzar Salman Niazi has dismissed the charges against him as unconstitutional, saying that what Khan said in his speech “does not even amount to criminal intimidation under the Pakistan penal code.” Imprisonment, if it did happen, would likely result in widespread civil unrest.
In April this year, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI or Pakistan Movement for Justice) lost a vote of confidence in parliament when former allies switched sides and supported the new leaders of the infamously corrupt dynastic parties. Shehbaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League and brother of former prime minister Newaz Sharif, who was banned from political office following the Panama Papers scandal, has become prime minister.
In a Faustian pact, Sharif is being supported by his erstwhile bitter enemies and rivals for the honeypot of high office, the Bhutto clan. Foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, current leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, is the son of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her former prime minister husband, Mr. “Ten percent” Asif Ali Zardari.
As with the American government’s legal moves on Trump, the efforts against Imran Khan are likely to backfire. Since his ousting as prime minister, he has crisscrossed Pakistan to speak at populist rallies ahead of the parliamentary elections slated for October. Already the most charismatic and popular politician in Pakistan, the judicial attack on Khan, has merely served to energize his electoral base.
There are three main themes to his campaign for re-election. Firstly, the perennial and justifiable claim that the dynastic parties are hopelessly corrupt appeals to young metropolitans. Secondly, his ideological dislike of America and his deeply religious Muslim beliefs appeal to Pakistan’s conservative Islamic electorate. At the time of his ousting in April, Khan has emphasized the role played by the “neutrals,” the Pakistani code word for the army and by its alleged ally, the CIA. According to Khan, Pakistan is being ruled by traitors imposed by a US-led “foreign conspiracy.” It is an accusation that plays well to an electorate that resents American Islamophobia and feels the US maligned Pakistan during the war on terror.
While there is no hard evidence of CIA support for Khan’s overthrow, there seems little doubt that his falling out with army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, lay at the heart of his political demise. Since independence, the Pakistan army has always exercised ultimate political control. They wield not only military heft but also significant economic clout.
The culture of economic entitlement in the army goes back to colonial times when retiring officers were granted land. Today its economic power largely rests in the army welfare institutions that benefitted hugely from General Zia’s privatization of Pakistani companies that had been nationalized by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In effect, Pakistan swapped neo-communism for crony military capitalism.
Military spending, which accounts for over 3 percent of GDP, has also been substantially aided by vast military grants from the United States — estimated at $18 billion over the last twenty years. Links between the US military and security services are strong if somewhat ambiguous given the army’s double-handed role with the Taliban. Nevertheless, it would not be all that surprising if General Bajwa had sought the CIA’s “permission” to oust Imran Khan. It may have been in the CIA’s interest to support the overthrow of a Pakistani prime minister so ideologically opposed to the United States, particularly at a time of rising geopolitical tensions with Russia and China. It could not have gone unnoticed that Imran Khan, albeit somewhat embarrassed, was meeting with Vladimir Putin in front of the world’s press when the Russian leader announced his “war of liberation” in Ukraine.
After his election victory in 2018, Khan had been keen to maintain good relations with China, a traditional ally in the region. However, developing better relations with Russia, historically an ally of Pakistan’s mortal enemy, India, was a notable foreign-policy shift. It was aided by the fact that President “Sleepy Joe” Biden, even during the Afghan withdrawal, failed to make a single call to the Pakistani prime minister.
Perhaps most important for Khan’s fall election campaign is the ever-worsening economic crisis. In July inflation leapt to a fourteen-year high of 28 percent. The possibility of default also looms. Pakistan is in a parlous debt situation. The economic discontent is such that Khan has warned that Pakistan is “not far from a Sri Lanka moment,” in reference to the street riots that overthrew its government in Colombo last month.
In hindsight, the ousting of Imran Khan in April now looks like a mistake by his political enemies. If Khan had been left in place by the army, he would have inevitably taken the unstoppable bullet of global inflation. Economic malaise can now be blamed on the dynastic parties. Unless their judicial chicanery can somehow knock Khan out of the fall elections, his return to power looks highly likely. A real bullet rather than an inflationary bullet may now be the only way to stop him. Given Pakistan’s bloody history, that eventuality cannot be ruled out.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.